On a chilly spring day in April, Will Jawando is standing outside a busy subway station, chatting up potential voters on what’s been a whirlwind, year-plus journey to become a U.S. Congressman.
The 33-year-old attorney is the youngest candidate and only African-American in a crowded field vying for a seat in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. The current representative, Chris Van Hollen, is battling fellow House member, Donna Edwards, for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate.
Jawando has deep roots in the area, a mix of rural and metropolitan counties that stretch from the Washington, D.C. 'burbs, to Pennsylvania’s borders. While largely white, with median household incomes that hover near $100,000, the region is also home to racially diverse communities.
“Areas like Prince George's County are majority African American. And there’s a large Latino population. We can no longer ignore the changing demographics,” he says. “I’ve watched the area grow, but in uneven ways, with unequal education, food deserts, and transportation issues that are affecting many people of color.”
Jawando wants to be a progressive voice to tackle such issues. His competitors in the race (reportedly one of the costliest House primaries in the nation) include a Maryland state senator, a former TV anchorwoman and a wealthy business mogul.
“About 53 percent of Congress are millionaires; my main competitors are millionaires,” says Jawando, who left a job with a top lobbying/consulting firm to run for office. “They live a very different life than me.”
Indeed, behind his impressive resume — filled with plum assignments in the Obama Administration and private sector — the backstory is decidedly less glamorous.
The son of an African immigrant father who fled civil war in Nigeria, and a white mother from Kansas, his formative years were spent in a Silver Spring, Maryland neighborhood known as Long Branch.
“It was very low income,” he recalls of the community, which has its share of social ills and crime. After his parents split when he was about six, his mother raised him solo. Around age 12, he lost one of his best friends to gun violence. “It was senseless.”
Jawando’s academic and athletic prowess helped him rise above any social challenges. He received a scholarship to a private boys’ school, and another to Catholic University.
He graduated Cum Laude with a sociology degree, then went on to complete his J.D. at the university’s Columbus School of Law. Along the way, he met his wife, Michele, who’s also an attorney. Their first date was a voter registration drive.
Today, the couple is raising three girls (ages 2, 3 ½ and 5) while juggling dual career demands. Jawando’s father, who has been diagnosed with cancer, now lives with them. Be it student loan debt, affordable child care, health insurance, or wage equity for working women, the candidate says he shares the same concerns as millions of Americans.
“I want to address what working families, people of color, younger people are confronting,” explains Jawando, whose platform includes raising the minimum wage, criminal justice reform, paid sick and family leave and “sensible” gun reform. “Those needs, and someone who can address them, are under-represented in Congress.”
While stumping on the campaign trail, the onetime Capitol Hill staffer touts his legislative experience. He learned the ins and outs of Congress while serving as an aide to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Barack Obama, back when the Commander-in-Chief was an Illinois Senator. Their similar lineage didn’t go unnoticed.
“When I had my interview, [Obama] said, 'Hey, are we long lost brothers?,'” chuckles Jawando, who tackled education, election reform, civil liberties, and poverty.
He later held posts in the Obama Administration, including at the U.S. Department of Education, and as Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. There, he led outreach efforts in the areas of education and other issues relating to children and families.
At other times on the Hill, Jawando has been an advocate for protecting programs such as Head Start and Pell Grants. Often, he says, he’d be the only person color in the room and younger than most, trying to ensure that those in power listened and acted.
“My contention is that we need new leaders in Congress if we’re going to get things done,” he says. “Knowing how Congress works is a plus.”
Jawando, who’s been endorsed by national figures like Congressman John Lewis, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and fellow Marylander, Congressman Elijah Cummings, also believes that the Democratic party needs to build its pipeline with fresh perspectives and voices.
To that end, he’s helped found two non-profits. The African Immigrant Congress seeks to harness the clout and potential of the nation’s burgeoning African population.
The other, called Our Voices Matter, Maryland aims to empower under-represented communities who have not traditionally been civically engaged.
“The best part of the American story is the chance to dream,” he says. “In just one generation, families have the opportunity to grow. I want people to know they can make it.”