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Ervin is a Force in the 'New' Montgomery County

James Wright | 2/23/2011, 8:27 p.m.
Valerie Ervin is the first Black woman elected to the Montgomery County Council and is the second Black to serve as its president. Photo courtesy of the Montgomery County Council  

The leader of Montgomery County's legislative body has become a power broker for the county's increasingly diverse populace and the major facilitator for discussions on how the county will balance its budget for 2012.

Valerie Ervin is the president of the Montgomery County Council, the first Black woman elected by her colleagues to that position, as well as the first Black female and second Black to serve on the county's legislature. Ervin wants to prepare the residents for the "New" Montgomery County.

"Montgomery County is now majority -- minority," Ervin, 54, said.

"We as county leaders began to see it in the school building several years ago and now it is a part of the new reality in the county, as well as the state. Politics as usual will change to reflect that new majority."

Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau reports that Montgomery County is now majority minority, with 50.7 percent of the population consisting of people of color. Demographers such as William Frey of the Brookings Institute in Northwest Washington predict that Maryland will become a majority-minority state in 2020.

Ervin said that she sees the changes in what were previously predominantly White counties.

"The changes in Maryland are taking place in the D.C. suburbs," she said.

"Of course, Prince George's County is predominantly Black but other counties such as Charles and St. Mary's are close to being majority minority."

While Ervin celebrates the change in Montgomery County, she is well-aware of the challenges that lie ahead. The county faces a projected $300 million deficit for fiscal year 2012.

"We are in extremely difficult circumstances," she said. "It is not just Montgomery County that is facing this but almost all D.C. area jurisdictions have these structural deficits. We are not alone in this."
Ervin, who holds a bachelor's degree from the National Labor College in Silver Spring and a master's in public administration from the University of Baltimore in Baltimore City, said that the present salaries and benefits of public employees are "not sustainable."

This is not easy for her to say, considering that she has spent most of her professional life as a labor organizer and she understands the important role that unions have played in helping minorities reach and maintain middle-class status.

"I have worked with catfish workers in Mississippi and textile workers in South Carolina," Ervin said.

"As a union organizer, I have learned to listen and respect people's work. Unions have played a key role in making sure that people are paid well and have good benefits."

Her ability to listen has made her a respected leader on the County Council.

County Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2), who represents the northern part of the county and its third Black elected member, said that serving with Ervin is a pleasure.

"She is a woman of vision and she is fair," Rice, 38, said.

"She wants to make sure that everyone's viewpoint is heard and respected."

Ervin said that it is a compliment when her leadership style is considered inclusive.

"It can be a challenge to lead eight other council members with distinct personalities who advocate different policies," she said.

"My door is always open to them and I stress to them the importance of moving forward."

Maryland Del. Tom Hucker (D-District 20) said that he has confidence in Ervin's leadership.

"Valerie is the perfect person to help the county," Hucker, 43, said.

"She works to find common ground and is a collaborator. Her work as a labor organizer will help bring the Council together for a consensus on this tough budget."

Hucker said that Ervin is his council representative and started gaining respect in the county in the mid-2000s as a member of the Board of Education.

Ervin said that she got into politics because she saw a need.

"Both of my sons were in the Montgomery County schools and I saw that there was an equity problem," she said.

"There was no one addressing the concerns of Black boys in the school system. Black boys did not have an advocate, so I decided to take on that role."

Ervin was elected to the Board of Education in 2004. However, when Tom Perez decided to step down from the County Council in 2006, she ran for his seat and won.

Her ascension can be attributed to her work under County Council member George Leventhal (D-At-Large) as his chief of staff and to the pioneering career of Isaiah Leggett. Leggett was the first Black elected to the County Council in 1986 and in 2006; he made history again when he was elected the county's first African-American county executive.

Leggett, 66, was elected to an at-large seat in 1986 and had been re-elected until 2006, when he became the county's leader. Ervin said that Leggett's work in politics paved the way for her.

"I knew of him before I met him," said Ervin, who has lived in the county for 26 years.

"He has been an extraordinary role model because when he was elected in 1986, there were no Blacks in leadership positions in the county. The great thing about Leggett is that he has been voted in by Whites and Asians and he did not campaign as a Black politician."

Rice, a resident of Germantown, said that Leggett's and Ervin's success is a result of doing good work.

"It's not about race," said Rice, who pointed out that the president of the Board of Education, Christopher Barclay, is African American.

"When I was a member of the House of Delegates, I represented one of the more affluent, least diverse districts in the county. People see that it is about what you do as their representative and if you are good at what you do, doors will open regardless of race."

Rice said that Leggett, Ervin, Barclay and he are "well qualified to hold their positions."

Ervin and her colleagues held a town hall meeting on the county budget on Wed., Feb. 2 at the Francis
Scott Key Middle School in Silver Spring. Ervin talked about her signature issue: the county's education system.

"We care deeply about the children in our public schools and our teachers," she said, noting the number of constituent concerns about how budget cuts will affect the school system.

"It is important that you let your elected representatives on the Board of Education know how you feel."

She said that she chose Montgomery County over living in the District and Prince George's because of the high quality of the schools. Her colleague, County Council member Nancy Navarro (D-District 4), told the gathering of 60 people that "a wonderful school system attracts other wonderful things."

Ervin's management of the meeting impressed Keith Roachford of Spencerville.

"She is a competent, [and] a well-thought of council member who has a strong background in education," Roachford, 45, said.

"She is well equipped to lead us in the future."

Iona Watson, who lives in Baltimore but works for the Montgomery County government, said that Ervin's leadership makes her proud.

"It shows how much progress we have made when you have a Black woman in this county making decisions and being a strong leader," Watson, 47, said.

"She is the right person at the right time."