Black residents in Montgomery County have a new training program to help then run for public office.
The nonpartisan program, called Rise and Run, will educate and prepare Black residents for politics. The program is connected to the nonprofit Council for Advocacy and Policy Solutions (CAPS).
Kelly Leonard, an advisory board member for CAPS, said in a phone interview Monday afternoon that the idea for the program came to her in October as she was thinking about the upcoming election in November.
One of the ballot questions led residents to vote for adding two district council members to the nine-member County Council.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be great for us to be proactive around identifying Black candidates to be trained and well-positioned to fill some of those empty seats,” she said, adding that the need for Black voices to be amplified is greater than ever.
With term limits keeping Council Members Craig Rice and Nancy Navarro from running for re-election, Leonard said a “decent diversity” could disappear from the council.
With Council Members Hans Riemer also hitting a term limit, and two new seats, at least five council seats out of 11 will be open in the next election cycle.
Rice and Council Member Will Jawando are the only Black members on the council.
“Fifty percent of the Black representation would go away,” Leonard said. “However, Black individuals, constituents, residents are a considerable force in this community and they make up considerable numbers. It would be a shame for us to lose the opportunity to be intentional on making sure that Black people or a Black person has a voice on the council.”
Leonard partnered with businessman David Blair, the founder and chair of CAPS, to launch the candidate training program. People have become more interested in political movements over the last four years, she said.
“It’s not enough for us to get excited and do nothing,” Leonard said. “We should provide a platform and resources to really prepare people for what it looks like to [go through] the process of campaigning, so they go into political office with their eyes wide open and having formal training to prepare them for the responsibility … of holding an elected political office.”
The six-month program will accept applications for the program between Jan. 22 and March 1. Applicants will be selected by March 15. There has been no decision yet on how many people will be selected for the program or what the cost will be.
“I am sensitive to the fact that people have to have skin in the game in order to take the learning seriously,” she said. “While we haven’t landed on a number yet, there will be some investment that would be expected.”
Qualifications listed on the program’s website include:
● Interest in running for elected public office
● Reputation that one is known for being “business-friendly”
● Passion for small business and entrepreneurship
● Ability to build and bridge relationships with business leaders
● Ability to create, understand and/or evaluate ideas to strengthen local economy
● Economy development experience (preferred)
● Private sector experience (preferred)
The program isn’t just designed for people who have political aspirations. Individuals who might have thought about running but were deterred by a lack of information will be welcome as well.
Instead of focusing on minorities in general, the program is targeted to the Black community because when a broad net is cast around minorities, oftentimes Black voices get diluted, she said.
Leonard said an emphasis on candidates who have some knowledge or background in economic development could help form better policies for the county’s economy and growth, including building a stronger tax base.
“We can want to address the needs of our constituents until we’re blue in the face. But if we don’t have the money to do it, we’re not going to be able to meet those needs,” she said.
In a phone interview Monday evening, Jawando said the county needs more representation for people of color, women and others.
“That’s a need in a county where [Black residents] make up 20% of the population and in the state, where we make up even more,” he said. “You get better policy when you have more people at the table.”
Although Jawando is not involved in the Rise and Run program, he said he supports the idea of getting more Black residents in public office.
“There’s a lot of groups that do this. It’s always good to have more tools in the tool kits for more candidates,” he said. “I think the more we can get groups who have been underrepresented in office … that’s good for democracy.”
Jawando has started organizations to increase civic engagement from the Black community and encourage Black residents to run for office through organizations such as Our Voices Matter and African Immigrant Caucus.
The Black community is diverse and the country’s largest African immigrant population is in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, according to Jawando.
Jawando, whose father emigrated to the United States from Nigeria, was the first County Council member in the county to wear traditional clothing to a council inauguration. He wore a traditional Nigerian agbada, which he then donated to the Montgomery County Historical Society.
“We have never had someone embrace their heritage in that way in a formal setting taking the oath of office,” he said. “I thought that was important to represent. You can be fully who you are. … I definitely stood out.”
Black residents might not run for office because many might feel disconnected from “power sources,” Jawando said.
“I think a lot of our communities, because of historical discrimination and racism in this country and system racism in the country, have been explicitly denied or more recently, not really connected to the people who hold the power,” he said.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.