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With unanimous vote, Montgomery passes wide-ranging racial equity bill

Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) said the racial equity bill is “a way for us, as government, to do our part.”
Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) said the racial equity bill is “a way for us, as government, to do our part.” (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)

The Montgomery County Council unanimously passed a sweeping racial equity bill Tuesday, joining dozens of liberal jurisdictions across the country attempting to use legislation to address long-standing racial disparities.

The Racial Equity and Social Justice Act, which some advocates commend as one of the strongest of its kind, will mandate racial equity training for more than 8,000 full-time government employees in the suburban county of 1 million people.

It requires that every bill considered by the council include a statement detailing the proposal’s impact on equity among different demographic groups, and it establishes an Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice with an annual operating budget of $375,860.

The legislation also requires every government agency and department to develop an action plan by Sept. 30 to address racial disparities, which include a poverty rate for black and Latino residents that is nearly triple that of white residents.

“This is significant,” said Julie Nelson, co-director of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which works with city and county leaders on racial equity. “This is an in-depth piece of legislation. . . . It’ll be useful for other counties to take a look.”

The bill, which County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said he will sign, was finalized after a year’s worth of community forums and public hearings. It marks Montgomery’s formal entry into the relatively uncharted territory of racial equity legislation, which has sparked heated discussions in various communities, including in Minnesota, New York and most recently Northern Virginia.

Fairfax County was the first jurisdiction in the D.C. area to approve equity legislation, in 2017. The “One Fairfax” initiative mandates equity considerations in policymaking for the county of 1.1 million, Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction.

Fairfax Supervisor Jeff C. ­McKay (D-Lee), who co-sponsored the bill, fielded criticism about it during his recent run for chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. ­McKay’s Republican opponent, Joseph Galdo, called the initiative unnecessary “socio­economic engineering”; on Election Day, some residents cited concerns about the program as a reason they cast their ballots for Galdo.

According to voting results, however, these residents were in the minority. McKay beat Galdo by more than 30 percentage points.

In liberal Montgomery, the most populous jurisdiction in Maryland, elected officials have received limited pushback on the equity bill, said County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-
District 4).

But some residents — including county Republicans as well as some liberals — have expressed misgivings. Among the latter group is David Lublin, an American University professor and former Chevy Chase mayor, who called the legislation “well-
intended but misguided.”

Lublin argued in a blog post that Montgomery, which dedicates half its budget to funding public schools, is already spending taxpayer money to fix racial inequities.

“Essentially, the wealthier areas of the county are taxed disproportionately to send a disproportionate share of funds to schools with more poor kids, which is as it should be,” he said in an interview Monday. “If that’s not social justice, I don’t know what is.”

Lublin said the equity impact statements and action plans required in the bill could take up valuable resources without guaranteeing results. “It will create the appearance of having acted, rather than making substantive progress in this area,” he said.

Carolyn Lowery, a racial equity organizer with the nonprofit Impact Silver Spring, said she was initially skeptical of the bill but changed her mind after working on it with council members.

Activists secured several amendments in recent weeks, including a $2,000 annual stipend for each of the eight members of the public who will be appointed to serve on a Racial Equity and Social Justice Advisory Committee. Activists said the stipend will hopefully make the committee more inclusive by easing the costs for lower-income citizens to participate.

“This bill is a framework. It’s a starting point, a minimum for what we will be required to do moving forward,” Lowery said.

Navarro agreed. She has made racial equity a signature of her second tenure as council president, co-sponsoring a bill banning discrimination based on natural hairstyles and urging more resources for Latino students.

The Racial Equity and Social Justice Act, she said in her opening remarks Tuesday, is not a panacea but an instrument — “a way for us, as government, to do our part.”

Later, after council members cast their final votes approving the bill, activists of various races and ages stood to applaud.

“Thank you,” Navarro said, smiling. “And celebrate.”

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