Most of Montgomery County’s 1 million residents are minorities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and while recent elections have begun to reflect that change, some say more progress is needed.
A record-high 32 black candidates — according to one candidate’s website — from the county ran in state and local races during the June 24 primary. They were just one of many minority groups with multiple candidates seeking office.
“I think a lot of people were inspired by the election and re-election of the president,” said Democrat Alan Bowser, who ran unsuccessfully for court clerk, a position never held by a black person in the county. “I think lot were inspired and encouraged by the example of our county executive and the lieutenant governor, who is running for governor.”
Yet despite the number of black candidates who ran for office, the face of Montgomery’s elected leadership looks to remain largely white following the Nov. 4 general election.
“I can’t say there’s an impressive trend or that we’re going in the right direction for either Latinos or for African-American candidates,” said Bowser, who is black.
Of the black candidates who ran for the General Assembly, only two, Del. Al Carr (D-Dist. 18) and Will Smith (D-Dist. 20) advanced to the general election.
However, the county delegation could become more diverse, as in addition to Carr and Smith, Dels. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Dist. 18), David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Dist. 15), Kumar Barve (D-Dist. 17), Aruna Miller (D-Dist. 15) and Susan Lee (D-Dist. 16) — who is running for the Senate — will be joined on the ballot by candidates who include Maurice I. Morales (D-Dist. 19), Rose Maria Li (R-Dist. 16), David Moon (D-Dist. 20), Gloria Cheng (R-Dist. 39) and Xiangfei Cheng (R-Dist. 39), and Felix Ed Gonzales II (R-Dist. 19) who is running for Senate.
Still, the county has never elected a black state senator, although Lee looks to bring more diversity to the Senate delegation as a woman of East Asian descent, Bowser said. And while County Executive Isiah Leggett, who is black, is favored to win a third term in November, the County Council will lose some diversity on its dais when Councilwoman Cherri Branson (D-Dist. 5) is succeeded by Del. Tom Hucker (D).
“Overall, we didn’t do very well,” Bowser said. “The reason for that? Very few of us got The Gazette endorsement; people pay attention to that. We also didn’t get the kind of press coverage that this phenomenon should have had during the campaign. We had an event back in [June] and there was no press there at all.”
The Montgomery County branch of the NAACP, together with the Black Ministers Conference, Black Chamber of Commerce, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and National Pan Hellenic Council, held a gathering on June 2 to recognize the record-high number of black candidates in the county.
The county NAACP and African American Democratic Club of Montgomery County did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
County Council President Craig L. Rice said the concentration of minority candidates in certain primary races — such as the council’s 5th District, where three black candidates ran for one seat — also worked against candidates by diluting and dividing an already small base of support. None of those three candidates advanced to the general election.
“Historically, Montgomery County has had a lack of minority representatives in elected office and that directly contributes to the lack of a base of support for minority candidates,” said Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown, who is black.
“It goes both ways,” he continued. “Part of the challenge is that because we don’t have many minorities that are in elected office, that leads to the disconnect, that leads to folks that are disengaged.”
It can be a struggle for a minority candidate to drum up volunteers and financial support, he said.
However, Carr said Montgomery County voters will elect diverse candidates “as long as those candidates are qualified,” citing Leggett’s legacy of elected service.
Leggett was the first black candidate elected to the County Council when he won in 1986. He served four terms and as chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party before being elected county executive in 2006. Leggett was also the council’s only black at-large member.
Black voters historically tend to lean Democratic, leaving Republicans often seen as the party of white men, a stereotype that Michael Higgs, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, considers unfair.
Higgs, who is white, said the GOP is growing in diversity, actively working to engage minority voters and candidates to help them see that its policies are good for their communities.
“We are definitely seeing a move toward more candidates that reflect the demographics of the electorate,” he said, adding that several Asian-Americans are running as Republicans in the general election and that the GOP’s lieutenant governor candidate, Boyd Rutherford, is black.
Change takes time, Carr said.
“You don’t expect to see change overnight. It takes time for the elected officials to reflect the population of Montgomery County,” he said. “It’s also hard to beat an incumbent regardless of the demographics involved, especially if the incumbents are doing their job.”
Bowser said minority candidates need to continue to seek office and grow name recognition to be successful.
“These trains only come around every four years, so they have to stay engaged and have to stay interested and they have to raise their profile,” Bowser said. “It’s not enough to think you can run in 2014 and come back in 2018 and not do anything in the intervening period.”
Carr noted it took him two elections to win his House seat.
Bowser said he hopes efforts to create a public campaign finance system, if successful, will help minority candidates.
As of 2013, non-Hispanic whites made up 47 percent of Montgomery County’s population, down from 59.5 percent in 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Of county residents, 18.6 percent are black, 18.3 percent are Hispanic and 14.9 percent are Asian, according to bureau data.