Six candidates for Montgomery County executive appeared before African American, Latino and Asian community leaders Friday morning to make their cases for why they should be elected to lead a majority-minority jurisdiction that is the most populous in the state.
All six of the candidates — along with one who was absent from the forum — are white.
"We're very concerned about that," said Carmen Larsen, president of the county's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who was among nearly 300 people at Montgomery's annual Minority Legislative Breakfast. "A lot of minorities are disenfranchised and don't think they can participate as well in the political process, or they might think the process is rigged and favors people who are not minorities."
Audience members said they hoped the county executive candidates would use their limited speaking time to talk about how they would protect undocumented residents at risk of deportation, support minority-owned small businesses and boost educational opportunities for minority students.
But the five Democrats and one Republican had a total of only four minutes each before a microphone, giving them little room to venture much beyond routine talking points.
"There are no communities in the world as diverse as Montgomery County," said Democratic candidate Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda). "If that isn't an asset, then shame on us."
Candidate Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said one of the largest problems facing Hispanic and African American communities were low graduation rates, something he would work to fix. Rose Krasnow, a Democratic candidate and deputy director of the county's planning department, said she would make it a priority to support nonprofits and other programs with ties to minority communities. State Del. C. William Frick (D-Montgomery) used his closing remarks to champion minority-owned small businesses.
Montgomery's racial and ethnic diversity has grown markedly in the last few decades. In 2010, the county was 49 percent white, down from 59.5 percent in 2000 and nearly 86 percent in 1980. As of the 2010 census, the county was nearly 17 percent black or African American. Seventeen percent of residents were Hispanic, and nearly 14 percent Asian or Pacific Islander.
Elected leadership has been slow to reflect the demographic changes. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who will retire after 2018, was elected Montgomery's first black council member in 1986 and its first black county executive 20 years later.
When he first entered politics, Leggett chose not to include his photograph in campaign materials. He is still the only black lawmaker elected countywide.
DeRionne Pollard, who is the president of Montgomery College and is African American, said she wanted to hear how the candidates would address workforce development and higher education opportunities.
Even though all the candidates are white, she said, it was important that they work to understand the lived experiences of minorities and "not objectify or other-ise."
"We may not have a platform of people that looks diverse, but I want to have them to have a consciousness of what the issues are," Pollard said.
Overall, the candidates spoke broadly about Montgomery's diversity as a key resource and said there was more work to be done to address workplace and educational disparities that disadvantage minorities and immigrants.
Candidates were given one minute for opening remarks, two minutes to answer a question drawn from a bowl, and another minute for closing remarks.
The forum had an awkward moment when Republican candidate Robin Ficker drew his question, which he announced to the crowd was, "What would you do for the African American community?"
Forum moderator Aryani Ong interrupted him to say that was not one of the questions in the bowl, then repeatedly asked Ficker to read the actual question.
"Would you like me to read it for you?" Ong said at one point, as nervous laughter filled the ballroom of the Bethesda Marriott and audience members cringed.
Ficker instead answered the question he had posed by listing a number of prominent African Americans he'd worked with and saying he's represented thousands of individuals of color in his job as a lawyer.
Ong later told The Washington Post that the question Ficker drew was: "What are your thoughts on policing in minority communities with undocumented residents who are fearful of coming into contact with the police because of the cloud of deportation?"
"I was asked a question about helping the African American community, a very relevant and insightful question which I answered to the best of my ability," Ficker told The Post later via email. In a later email, he added, "Sounds like someone was intending for me to have a different question."
The other candidate at the forum was Democrat David Blair. A sixth Democrat in the race, councilmember George Leventhal (D-At Large), could not attend.
The filing deadline for the 2018 election is in February, and the primary is June 26.