Exploring a Run for Governor: My Journey

As a boy growing up in Montgomery County, I often saw my dad shake his head at the latest medical headline (vitamin C prevents cancer) or conventional health wisdom (wear a coat or you’ll catch a cold). “It hasn’t been tested in a controlled study,” he’d tell me. As I got older and shared my thoughts with him on how to tackle social problems like poverty and crime, he’d say, “That’s a very interesting idea. But is there a rigorous study showing it really works?” Dad was a medical researcher at the National Institutes of Health, where he developed treatments for infectious diseases and cancer. He died a few years ago, and the inscription on his grave reads, “He sought truth through science and reason.” It captures him perfectly.

I inherited my dad’s passion for research and evidence. For over 20 years, it’s driven my work with government, nonprofits, and philanthropy to address society’s major challenges — like improving education, expanding access to affordable healthcare, and providing pathways to the middle class for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. To accomplish these goals, it’s not enough to simply spend more money on ideas and programs that sound plausible. We need to invest in approaches that have been tested in the real world and shown to make a difference in people’s lives.

Maryland needs this approach, and it’s the reason I’m exploring a run for governor. Our state is the greatest in the nation, but, together, we can make it even stronger. Over the next few months, I want to hear from you. Tell me what you think is working and what we need to change. You can share your thoughts in the comments section below, drop me an email (jon@jonbaron.com), or let’s meet up over Zoom or when I’m in your neighborhood.

I’d also like to tell you a bit more about me and my vision for our state. The short version is that I’m a dad and a husband. My wife, Jessica, and I have two boys. We live in Montgomery County right down the road from my childhood home. I told you about my dad. My mom was just as big of an influence in my life. She was a special education teacher in public schools and taught children with reading difficulties. My parents raised my siblings and me to believe that helping your neighbors and serving your community is one of the most important things you could do with your life.

I followed their example and devoted my career to public service. Early on, I learned how to drive real change in government — first as a Congressional staffer who worked with members of Congress to enact major legislation, and later as a Clinton Administration official who headed a nearly billion-dollar program and led reforms that won the vice president’s Hammer Award for reinventing government. In 2001, I founded and ran the nonprofit Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, which the New York Times called “a national leader” in the movement to increase government effectiveness through evidence about what works. Trusted by the Obama and Bush Administrations and Congress, we worked with policymakers to enact major reforms in social spending programs aimed at focusing funds on proven solutions. I’ve continued that work most recently as vice president of a nonpartisan national philanthropy.

I’m a lifelong Democrat, but my work has always been bipartisan. I’ve been an appointee of Democratic and Republican presidents, and have twice been confirmed by the Senate.

My career and my potential run for governor are motivated by the same problem: In important areas, we’re making too little progress. For example, in education, more than a quarter of middle school students in Maryland can’t read at a basic competency level, and more than a third are below that level in math. These numbers haven’t improved in 20 years despite numerous policy efforts, including a major increase in state education spending in the 2000s. Low and moderate income families have seen stagnant wages for decades as income inequality has grown. Meanwhile, the nation’s largest, billion-dollar job training program — which operates widely in Maryland and other states — isn’t delivering the hoped-for results. Workers who participate in the program end up with earnings that are roughly the same as those who don’t participate. Healthcare costs keep going up, squeezing family budgets, despite many well-intentioned attempts to control costs.

Good intentions aren’t enough. To tackle these longstanding problems, we need a completely different approach.

Because of my efforts and many others’, today there are a growing number of exceptional social programs — ones that have been rigorously shown (yes, Dad, in controlled studies) to improve lives and reduce racial and social inequality. For example, there are one-on-one tutoring programs for struggling first and second graders that move them up toward grade level early, before their problems become serious in later grades. There are community college programs that increase the graduation rate of students from low-income families by 25 percent. And there are employment programs that train low-income young adults for jobs in fast-growing sectors of the economy, increasing their earnings by 20 to 40 percent. These are large effects, sustained over time.

In health policy, there’s a program that pairs Black barbershops with pharmacists, so when men come in to get their hair cut, they also get screened for high blood pressure and, if needed, get medication. The program reduces the rate of uncontrolled high blood pressure — a leading killer among Black men — by more than half.

These are just a few examples. My main goal as governor would be to bring effective solutions from around the country to Maryland so that, for example, every struggling first and second grader receives high-quality tutoring, and every young adult who wants to advance has access to effective job training.

Maryland is at a crossroads: We can either keep doing the same old, same old — or we can pioneer a new approach to governing, based on evidence about what actually works, that would make a difference for people all across our state. Proven solutions can be implemented, in most cases, using existing state funds. I’m not advocating a major expansion in state spending. I am advocating smart spending on strategies that really work. Marylanders deserve this as taxpayers, and also as individuals and families who would benefit from truly effective education, employment, and healthcare opportunities.

I look forward to talking with you over the coming months. Send me your ideas for what you want to see — and let’s work together to build a bright future for our state.

Dad, husband, former non-profit executive, nationally-recognized policy expert and proud Marylander.