Montgomery County's black and Hispanic minorities have recently stepped up political activity and challenges of government employment practices in what they describe as a test of the county's long-touted liberal traditions.
On the political front, in particular, blacks and Hispanics are running for Democratic precinct posts on an unprecedented scale--in many cases challenging incumbent party officials. They say they want to force the county's dominant party to open its door wider to minorities, one of the Democrats' most consistently loyal constituency groups.
On the employment front, blacks recently filed discrimination complaints against the recreation and the police departments. The county's black police officers in March filed a class action suit in Baltimore, charging the county discriminates against blacks in hiring and promotions, while a part-time recreation worker has filed a discrimination complaint.
Blacks, on average, do well in business in Montgomery County and they have started to exercise new clout in economics.
A new black leadership assembly, initiated by county minority purchasing officer Lavell Merritt, has been meeting regularly and organizing a data bank to assess the economic potential of black businesses by determining where they bank and where they buy insurance.
This increasing minority visibility comes just as Montgomery is shedding its bedroom-community image and adjusting to its new role as an urban center. In addition, Montgomery is relatively affluent. It is not suffering from problems common to other areas, such as budget deficits, layoffs and high unemployment.
That combination has made for a certain restlessness among minorities, who say they believe they are taken for granted in the county. Politically, blacks and Hispanics--a traditional staple of the Democratic party alliance--want more say in the party.
"In our case," said Javier Miyares, a state education researcher who is leading a bloc of seven Hispanics for precinct offices, "we have been working in the party for quite awhile, and we have decided we wanted to be inside the party, not just getting our people's vote out on election day but being part of the game."
Said Miyares: "The Democratic Party has been more or less responsive to our needs." But he added, "The dissatisfaction is that we don't want things done for us, we want to do things ourselves. We have had a hard time getting inside the party, but we were expected to vote for the party."
"What we're trying to do," he said, "is break it wide open."
Miyares said the Hispanics have one other goal in trying to capture some usually low-visibility precinct jobs: to groom a future generation of Hispanic political leaders.
"We have young Hispanics running, and we see them several years from now running for elective office."
Similarly, Tony Fisher, a black Montgomery County police officer defeated in his bid to become sheriff, has been quietly encouraging blacks to run for key precinct offices in Silver Spring, Bethesda and in upper Montgomery County.
"It is unfortunate that there are not a sufficient number of minorities at the precinct level," he said. The challenges by blacks this time, he said, "are in districts with significant numbers of minorities who have not been reached out to."
Fisher, described by Democratic Party professionals as the one of the first black politicians in the county to build an organization and get involved in the Democratic Party, said his goal is to increase minority participation.
He said this effort comes now, after his losing primary race last year because "my level of political education, and the political education of many other blacks, has just now reached fruition this year."