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Meet the candidates who want to be Maryland’s next governor

7/4/2022 | Ovetta Wiggins

The Washington Post

John B. King Jr. (D)

Once a troubled teen expelled from high school, John B. King Jr. knows what it’s like to be scolded.

But at a recent gala with roughly 700 Democratic Party loyalists in the audience, King — a Harvard- and Yale-educated lawyer and former high school social studies teacher — was the one doing the reprimanding.

King, 47, took the stage to share his vision for Maryland as one of 10 candidates vying for the party’s gubernatorial nomination, and, in less than three minutes, blasted the party establishment for “not doing enough” to improve education outcomes, to help the uninsured and to address the climate crisis.

“We need to stop acting like the party of Hogan Democrats and Joe Manchin III Democrats who think that people who are struggling should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and start acting like the party of FDR Democrats … the party of Obama Democrats … and the party of Raskin Democrats,” he said, making a final reference to last year’s lead House impeachment manager, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), who was a strong proponent of liberal issues when he served in the state General Assembly.

The U.S. education secretary under President Barack Obama, who has held numerous political appointments, has spent years around politicians but has never been elected to public office. King supports a bold agenda that includes universal, affordable child care and ending the state’s reliance on fossil fuels, pledging 100 percent clean energy use in all Maryland public buildings by 2030. He calls health care a “human right,” and wants to create a program that provides health care for all, regardless of immigration status.

In the final weeks of the campaign he’s distinguished himself as the choice of a number of liberal organizations, including Sierra Club Maryland, Pro-Choice Maryland and Our Revolution Maryland.

King said he is modeling his campaign after that of Raskin, who “also faced millionaires and celebrities” in his competitive, crowded primary in 2016 to win the 8th Congressional District seat.

But, unlike King, Raskin, who served nearly a decade in the General Assembly, had name recognition and a legislative record that allowed him to quickly emerge as a front-runner in the primary. King is battling to be recognized as a top-tier candidate in his race, where others have raked in bigger endorsements and are sitting on heftier war chests.

King said he decided to launch his first political campaign after a career in public service because he saw the inequities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and viewed it as a “New Deal moment,” when the state could confront deeper systemic challenges.

“I really became convinced that the next governor is going to be uniquely positioned to make government a force for good in people’s lives and that’s always been my mission, you know, because of the role public school played in my life as a kid,” he said during a recent interview.

King was orphaned when he was 12 and spent his formative years bouncing from one relative’s home to another. King’s classrooms became his safe haven, and his teachers, the only trusted adults in his life. His mother, a public school teacher, died of a heart attack when he was 8. His father, a lifelong educator who had been the first African American principal in Brooklyn, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

After his father died, King won a scholarship to an elite boarding school where he ran into trouble and ultimately was expelled. He settled in New Jersey with his aunt and uncle, who provided him stability and structure.

“As I think about public policy, I’m very conscious that I was lucky, you know, and I say to folks, my story is not about me being special. It’s about the special people and institutions that intervened in my life that made it possible for me to have the opportunities that I’ve had,” he said.

King, who received a doctorate in education administration from Columbia, worked as a high school social studies teacher and a middle school principal, and founded a charter school in Boston before he became the top education official in New York state.

He faced fierce criticism in New York, battling parents over Common Core testing and teachers over evaluations. In 2015, a New York teacher sued King, then the former state commissioner, over the evaluation method, which sometimes factored in a school’s reading and math test scores into a teacher’s evaluation. The evaluation method, known as value-added measurement (or modeling) was embraced by the Obama administration. By the time the lawsuit was filed he was already working as an adviser at the U.S. Department of Education. He was eventually named secretary in Obama’s final year in office.

He founded Strong Future Maryland — a 501(c) (4) advocacy organization — in 2020, and it has pushed for liberal policies, including the abolition of life sentences without parole for juveniles, emergency relief for renters, and collective bargaining for employees at public universities.

“John is one of the most thoughtful, committed public servants I know,” said Arne Duncan, who was King’s predecessor as education secretary. Duncan, who left his post in the Obama Cabinet early, said he remembered the White House asking him for 10 names of candidates to fill his position. “I was thinking I could give you 20 names, but there’s only one person you should hire and it’s John,” he said.

Duncan described King as a “real easy going guy,” but said people shouldn’t underestimate him because of his mild-mannered nature.

“Sometimes people mistake that kindness for weakness, and there’s a backbone of steel there, and that was always true to Barack and that’s true to John,” Duncan said.

With education a top issue of voters, King says he is best suited to address “the kind of made up issue of critical race theory” Republicans could use as a lever to divide voters in November.

He made it the focus of his first ad, where he introduced himself to voters earlier this year. In it, he says the gaps in health, wealth and criminal justice in America are tied to the history of slavery, segregation and redlining. He shares his own story, of having ancestors who were enslaved in a cabin less than 25 miles from his home in Montgomery County.

“It’s important to cover African American history, Latino history, Asian American history, the contributions of different communities to the country’s history,” King said. “It’s also important to tell the hard parts and to tell the story of Japanese-American internment, to share the times when we’ve slid backward as a society, I think, and there’s a direct line connection between the KKK and in the post-Civil War period after slavery ended and what happened in Buffalo. And so students need to understand that.”