Valerie Ervin says she knows who put her on the Montgomery County school board this month.
"It certainly didn't hurt that I was an African American or that I was a woman," said Ervin, an aide to County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who won 59 percent of the vote and raised nearly $50,000. "It helped me in the black community. It helped me in the Latino coalition. It helped me in parts of the Asian community."
Ervin's victory, which ensures that the school board will continue to have a black member, is being studied by community and political leaders who want the 2006 elections to correct what they regard as an embarrassing snag in Montgomery County's progressive reputation.
Minorities make up nearly 40 percent of Montgomery's population and account for as much as 55 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. Yet only two nonwhite members have won seats on the County Council since its formation in 1949.
"If this were Mississippi, you would be jumping up and down, saying, 'How can you tolerate this system?' " council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) told an audience last month.
Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), who is Latino, is the council's only nonwhite member. Isiah Leggett, who is black, stepped down from his council seat in 2002. Donnell Peterman, who is black, briefly filled a vacancy in 2002 but chose not to run for a full term.
Andrews was among the most prominent supporters of Question C, a Nov. 2 ballot issue that would have eliminated the council's four at-large seats and created a panel with nine districts, each serving about 110,000 residents.
Additional district seats, proponents argued, would eliminate costly countywide races and enable more minorities to finance campaigns.
The issue was defeated by a substantial margin. Opponents, who included most of the county's elected officials, said at-large seats are critical to making policy for the whole county.
Nevertheless, Perez, who opposed Question C, said the need for more minorities on the council remains crucial.
"The failure to make progress on this front plays into the misperception that other counties have of Montgomery County. . . . They think we are lily-white," said Perez, who is considering running for Maryland attorney general instead of seeking reelection.
Council members and community leaders have been meeting with potential 2006 candidates. Robert "Bo" Newsome, an African American who ran for the House of Delegates in 2002, is mentioned as a possible candidate.
The return of Peterman, who is pastor of Joshua Group Ministries in Silver Spring, is also a possibility.
"If we've got a huge bunch of white faces running for all these offices in 2006, we only have ourselves to blame," said council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), who is considering a bid for county executive.
The next election could be a boon of sorts for minority candidates in Montgomery.
If Silverman runs for county executive, he might well face Leggett, who was on the council for 16 years. The result could be a 2006 county Democratic primary with an unprecedented spotlight on minority hopefuls.
Leggett said he would like to run in concert with at least one minority County Council candidate. Silverman, in turn, would try to align himself with a minority slate, political observers predict.
Although Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) backed Robert E. Dorsey, a black Rockville City Council member, in an unsuccessful challenge to Andrews in the 2002 Democratic primary, some minority activists said Duncan shares the blame for the lack of diversity on the council.
"He needed to be proactive," said Gustavo A. Torres, president of CASA de Maryland.
David Weaver, a spokesman for Duncan, said the county executive has supported a half-dozen minority candidates for state or county office during his tenure in office.
Others said Duncan and the county establishment cannot be blamed for the lack of non-white candidates.
"Holding public office is not the thing that an emerging community focuses on," said Derick Berlage, a former County Council member who heads the Planning Board.
"As the economic success of so many minorities becomes more evident, you will see more and more minorities running," he said.
An early indicator of that trend surfaced in 2002, when more than a half-dozen minority candidates ran for the General Assembly.
That year, Ana Sol Gutierrez (D) became the second Hispanic to represent the county in the House of Delegates. Herman L. Taylor II (D) and Gareth E. Murray (D) became the first two blacks elected to the House of Delegates from Montgomery. And Del. Susan C. Lee (D) became the first Asian from the county to win a seat in Annapolis.
Yet significant hurdles to a diverse County Council remain. The biggest obstacle is also what appears to be an enormous advantage: county demographics. Montgomery's minority community is far-flung and fragmented.
According to the 2000 Census, blacks compose 15 percent of the county's population, and Asians and Latinos each represent about 11.5 percent. The numbers of blacks in the county grew by 43.3 percent between 1990 and 2000, a jump largely fueled by an influx of African immigrants. During the same period, the county's Hispanic population increased 80.7 percent and the Asian population by about 60.5 percent during the same period.
Minorities make up the majority in council Districts 5 (Silver Spring) and 6 (Eastern County). Yet elected officials said they are anything but a unified voting bloc.
"It's a huge mistake to assure a minority will be elected with minority votes," Leventhal said. "The only way a minority candidate can get elected is to build a broad coalition."
Building those coalitions isn't easy when mistrust, cultural differences and independence can keep racial and ethnic groups from working together, elected officials said.
"Does the Asian community have any greater interest in being represented by a black councilman than a white councilman?" Leventhal asked. "I think the answer is no."
Community leaders said blacks, Asians and Latinos are subtly competing to field successful candidates.
"We want someone who will make us proud, get us excited. We are looking for leaders," said Taylor, who said he is trying to lure former school board member Reggie Felton, who is black, to run for an at-large council seat.
But a candidate who represents the interests of the black community might not be the best candidate for Latinos, Gutierrez said.
"I think it would be ideal if we could have consensus around one minority candidate," Gutierrez said. "But I can tell you, the issues so many Latinos face are so totally different from what African Americans or Asians face. . . . We wouldn't support a black candidate simply because they are black."
Successful coalitions, however, can be built.
In her 2002 race for the House of Delegates, Lee received strong backing from the Hispanic Democratic Club. Perez received strong support from blacks in his race for the council. And in his race for delegate, Taylor was elected with broad support from the white community.
Lee said she expects racial and ethnic groups to overlook their cultural differences in elections and focus on issues of mutual agreement, such as education and health care. Others, though, point to Ervin's success as proof that race might not be a factor in future campaigns for county office.
Ervin, the only minority officeholder who has been elected countywide, said he thinks race will be a factor in elections for quite some time. "There is still this old mentality of the South that we have our quota. If we have one, that is enough," she said.