A Changing Political Terrain Through the Eyes of One Candidate

By Josh Kurtz

The early-morning crickets were still chirping when Will Jawando and his family, friends and supporters met in the parking lot of Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville a couple of Saturdays ago.

They were gathered, along with dozens of politicians, civic groups, marching bands and first responders, for the annual Burtonsville Day Parade, a fun event and a must for Montgomery County office-seekers – and important enough on this day to also draw Adrianna David, who was soon to relinquish her crown as Miss Maryland.

As the parade slowly snaked up a hill and out of the parking lot, on to Old Columbia Pike, Jawando prepped himself and his crew for the parade-goers sitting and standing along the shady side of the street, the first of many voters he would meet that day.

“Here come some people,” he said to no one in particular.

At the same time, Jawando, dressed in khaki pants and a crisp plaid shirt, was lamenting that he could not be two places at once: Halfway across the county, the annual Poolesville Day parade was taking place at the exact same time. Jawando, who is seeking one of four at-large seats on the Montgomery County Council, had a handful of supporters there, marching with a banner alongside the politicians who had decided to make that event a priority.

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Will Jawando greeting parade-goers in Burtonsville. Photo courtesy of Houston Ruck Design

On this particular Saturday, Jawando, 34, was formally announcing his candidacy. But the field is so big – at least two dozen Democrats, and growing – that two other candidates, journalist and community activist Evan Glass and Lorna Phillips Forde, a travel business owner, were also announcing their bids that day. Jawando would spend his time not only meeting voters but bumping into at least a dozen of his opponents at various venues – an opportunity for easy banter or the occasional awkward moment, depending on who he encountered.

With its unheard-of size, the roster of Democratic contenders offers something for everyone – a panoply of race, gender, ethnicity, professional experience, political background and philosophy (within the norms of liberal Montgomery County politics, of course).

But the sheer size of the field also makes for interesting maneuvering. Some candidates in the at-large race have laid out a strategy that can only be described as microtargeting, confining most of their energies on a small geographical territory and swath of voters. Others are taking a more scatter-shot approach. Still others see opportunity in a variety of communities and with a variety of interest groups.

Asked about his goal for the campaign kick-off and the days to follow, Jawando replied, “To be as many places as possible around the county. It’s a great county. It’s a big county. It’s 500 square miles. We’re trying to visit as much as possible.”

Jawando’s day offered a microcosm of the race – and his strategy.

Brave New World

It’s become almost a cliché to say it, but it bears repeating: Montgomery County is changing. Once a wealthy, mostly white bedroom community with large swaths of rural territory, the county is now part suburban but plenty urban, with some rural areas preserved by county land use policies. The population is majority-minority. The public school system is now more than 70 percent non-white.

The old political order is also changing. The county’s representation, in Annapolis and Rockville, is slowly, slowly, starting to catch up to reflect the county’s racial and ethnic make-up. Traditional power brokers of the last few decades have seen their influence wane: the business community, the civic organizations, the unions, The Washington Post editorial board.

Shockingly, there is barely any organized media covering Montgomery County anymore, despite its million-plus population. Who will tell the people what’s going on? How will average voters learn about all the candidates looking to represent them? Will the elections be dominated by a tiny minority of activists?

“It’s not just likely voters that we need to go after, because that writes off so many voters,” said Brandy Brooks, another Democrat seeking an at-large council seat.

Add newly-imposed term limits and a new public financing system into the mix, and there’s an unprecedented element of uncertainty in Montgomery County politics these days. It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that the 2018 election looks a little like the Wild West in this once-genteel jurisdiction, but it sure feels different.

“The public finance system rewards hard work and organization and not traditional organizations,” said County Councilmember George Leventhal (D), who is now in his fourth term as an at-large member and is running for county executive in 2018.

And yet, ironically, even as traditional powerhouses see their influence waning, the huge at-large field could, temporarily, boost their power.

“In the council at-large field, endorsements will make an enormous difference,” Leventhal observed. “Because how else are you going to differentiate among 30 liberal to progressive Democrats? You need validation.”

The Democratic battle for the four at-large council seats is also a numbers game that resembles more of a crap shoot than anything involving rational calculations.

There are approximately 377,000 registered Democrats in Montgomery County. About 90,000 Democrats voted for governor in the 2014 primary, while about 88,000 voted for county executive. The top vote-getter in the six-candidate at-large council primary in 2014 got about 57,000 votes. The No. 4 finisher – good enough to win a seat – got about 46,000 votes.

Jawando has already run for office twice, unsuccessfully. In 2014, he finished about 400 votes out of the money in the Democratic primary for a House of Delegates seat in District 20, taking 5,620 votes. Two years later, he received 6,058 votes in an unsuccessful bid for Congress in the 8th District, finishing fifth in a nine-candidate field. He is aiming for 60,000 votes this time – but that shouldn’t be necessary given the size of the field.

Those two losses would be dispiriting to many candidates, but in a Democratic primary with 20 or more contenders, they could be an asset. Jawando has at least put himself before the voters before and attracted a measure of support. Some people already like him, and others are at least used to hearing about him.

“Candidates who have run before, even if they lost (respectably), will have an advantage over those who have not,” Adam Pagnucco wrote earlier this year in an analysis of the at-large race published in The Seventh State.  “That’s because of two reasons. First, they have electoral experience and don’t have the often-steep learning curve of brand-new candidates. Second, they will have leftover support, relationships and name recognition from their prior races.  Why do we emphasize this? MoCo electoral history is full of candidates who lost and later came back to win.”

The Obama Parallel

Jawando’s life story has been repeated frequently. Son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Nigeria. A wife named Michele. Handsome and athletic. It seemed almost inevitable, after stints staffing other politicians on Capitol Hill, that he’d go work for Barack Obama, who once referred to Jawando as “apparently, my long-lost brother.”

But instead of coming of age in exotic locales like Indonesia and Hawaii, like the president he served, Jawando grew up poor in the Long Branch neighborhood of Silver Spring. He went to college and law school at Catholic University. He and his wife, a vice president at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, have tens of thousands of dollars in law school debt.

The Jawandos met in 2004 at the Chi-Cha Lounge on U Street in D.C. Their first date was at a voter registration drive Will Jawando was leading outside a Temptations concert at Wolf Trap, the performing arts venue in Virginia. They were engaged nine months later.

Some friends have suggested that Michele Jawando, who has also held high-powered jobs on Capitol Hill, has the real talent for politics, and is the Jawando who ought to be running for office. Her husband calls her “much more impressive and beautiful and smart.”

But Michele Jawando said that with three young daughters – the oldest turns 7 next month, and the others are 5 and 3 – she’s content to be the supporting player for now. As she ponders a possible political career down the line, she says she contemplates “the Nancy Pelosi model” – referring to the House Democratic leader who did not launch her own political career until she was in her mid-40’s, when her five children were mostly grown.

Besides, Michele Jawando told Maryland Matters, “Will handles the nonsense [of politics] a lot better than me.”

In past races, Will Jawando has touted his service in the Obama administration. But Obama connections seem almost de rigueur for Democratic office-seekers in the era of Donald Trump.

This time, Jawando is emphasizing a summer jobs program he organized in Montgomery County in conjunction with the public schools called R.I.S.E (Real Interesting Summer Experience). More than 400 underprivileged teenagers had internships or paying jobs this summer – and not every story involves a kid and a vocation. Jawando also found himself helping struggling families find professional looking clothes for their children participating in the employment program, or securing funding to help them take public transit to their jobs.

“I saw these kids’ eyes open up,” Jawando said. “They got a taste of what opportunities exist for them.”

Long Day’s Journey

Jawando greeted everyone with equal enthusiasm at the Burtonsville parade. He exchanged easy banter with parade-watchers, high-fived kids, tossed out candy alongside his volunteers. But he seemed to take an extra second with many African-American parade-watchers, making eye contact, renewing old acquaintances, establishing a connection.

Montgomery County Democrats frequently talk about the “fertile crescent” of voters who live, roughly, between Bethesda and Takoma Park. But some minority candidates also talk about the untapped African-American and African vote in the East County. Jawando, who lives in Colesville, clearly sees an opportunity.

“These are areas that historically have been neglected, in resources and amenities,” he said.

The population of Burtonsville has diversified dramatically in recent years, and Jawando is hoping to take advantage. At the end of the parade, in the parking lot of a local community center, Jawando visited several of the booths set up by local organizations. But he lingered at the one belonging to the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, whose leaders were wearing T-shirts that said, “The oldest and the coldest.”

But he couldn’t linger too long. From there, it was on to Gaithersburg, and a small luncheon in his honor at the home of Keitha and Brian Mahone, friends from church who have known the Jawandos for about seven years.

“We’re naturally drawn to good people,” Brian Mahone, a realtor who also works at the Food and Drug Administration, said in an interview.

“Will Jawando, Michele Jawando – dynamic team, wonderful team,” Mahone told the dozen or so friends and neighbors, mostly African-American professionals, gathered in his living room or the adjoining kitchen. He compared the couple to Jack and Jill. “Good family guy. Good Christian brother.”

After being introduced by his wife, Jawando spoke about his own upbringing in a struggling household surrounded by wealthy neighbors. “I live with that duality,” he said.

Jawando talked about all the good Montgomery County has to offer, but also its challenges – to close the achievement gap in the public schools, to ensure that there’s adequate vocational training in the school system, to take care of the county’s growing aging population and to ensure that poorer residents are able to survive in a place where the cost of housing continues to rise.

“When I run, I run with a clear eye on the best of who we are and what we need to get better,” he said. Voters, Jawando predicted, would be looking for “people who understand real life and real trials, but also have policy experience.”

Jawando also talked at some length about the county’s new public finance system for those candidates who choose to participate. Jawando has displayed a talent for shaking the tin cup – collecting about $535,000 for his unsuccessful congressional run. But this time, he’s limiting his fundraising by accepting public funding.

“This will be a real people-powered campaign,” he said.

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Will Jawando (left) with one of his opponents, Gabe Albornoz, during Jawando’s formal announcement at a restaurant in Silver Spring. Photo courtesy of Houston Ruck Design

 

After taking several questions, Jawando had to leave. His original plans called for a quick swing by the Poolesville Day activities, but he had to abandon them to ensure that he put in an appearance at the annual Silver Spring Democratic Club picnic, hosted this year by County Councilmember Tom Hucker.

By the time he got to the picnic, Jawando had changed into dark slacks and a blue shirt. He schmoozed with the dozens of political activists and fellow candidates on hand, including a few of his opponents. But he missed the first two speaking opportunities for candidates, and then he had to leave, for his formal announcement event at Hen Quarter, a new restaurant featuring Southern cuisine in downtown Silver Spring.

There, the Jawandos lingered with a diverse crowd of several dozen. He delivered a variation of his stump speech again. By early evening, he and his young family could finally head for home.

Michele Jawando said that after her husband had lost the congressional race, the family had prayed on whether he should run for office so soon afterward. But she said she was willing – she grew up in a politically active household in New York and her parents frequently dropped everything to support a cause. The Jawando daughters, she added, are already firm believers in the importance of public service and are enjoying the campaign.

And the candidate himself? Michele Jawando looked at her husband, who was out of hearing range.

“What’s different about this race?” she said. “He’s wiser. He sees things other people don’t.”

Coda: “There are 8 million stories in the naked city. This was one of them.” Those were the closing words of a 1948 film noir called “The Naked City,” about a murder in New York City. In a city that size, not everyone’s story can be told. With two dozen or more candidates running for at-large council seats in Montgomery County, there are two dozen or more political stories. This was one of them.       

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