There are rules for knocking on someone’s door while campaigning. And Will Jawando, a few weeks back, broke a big one. “Rule 101 in canvassing,” he told MTV News, “is that you don’t go inside.” This makes sense. There’s only so much daylight to use knocking on doors, and there are significant security concerns for all parties involved. “But as the candidate, I can break the rules,” Jawando said.
It didn’t seem like there would be any harm in this case. The woman who invited him in was a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor from Germany. “She wanted to talk, and I told her about my background: My dad coming to this country on the heels of a civil war in his country, and [me] growing up here,” Jawando said. “You could tell that she related.”
Jawando, 33, is the youngest candidate in a crowded Democratic primary race in Maryland’s upper-crust 8th Congressional District. But as he sat in this stranger’s living room, both of them were just different shades of the American immigrant story. The same thing can be said for Jawando’s former boss: President Obama. And the similarities between the two men are uncanny.
Both Jawando and Obama are the telegenic sons of African immigrant fathers and white mothers from Kansas (that’s where Jawando’s father, Olayinka, met his mother, Kathleen Gross, in the early 1970s, after fleeing Nigeria’s civil war). Both lost their first attempts to win public office: Obama in a congressional primary, Jawando for a Maryland state representative seat. Both are policy wonks with a talent for retail politics. Both are even married to women with the same name who are both accomplished attorneys; Jawando’s Michele is a vice-president at the Center for American Progress policy institute. Jawando served as the White House associate director of public engagement in 2010, and, if he wins in Maryland, will become the first Obama administration alumnus elected to public office.
Should he get there, of course, Jawando wouldn’t be Obama. Diverse black American lives have long been reduced to a monolithic “experience,” and that problem gets exacerbated when you happen to share uncanny biographical similarities with the President. Both men also have considerable political talent and a love for the wonkish details of policymaking, but Jawando makes it clear that he has his own reasons for entering politics.
“My public service journey, really, I can trace back to my teenage years growing up here in Silver Spring, in the district I’m running to represent,” he told MTV News. Jawando was 12 when he got the first of many scholarships he’d win, all the way through law school. It was at that young age that he began to “have a different path” than some of the friends he’d grown up with. In 1998, during his second year of high school, Jawando lost a close friend to gun violence, one who hadn’t had the same access to education and other resources to get ahead. “It was one of those pivotal moments that caused me to examine the inequities in our system,” he said. He also received a less-fateful lesson during law school when, as he described in an op-ed last year, he was arrested (and later cleared) after a friend he was with insulted an undercover police officer.
Once he completed his law degree, Jawando began searching for the best way to address those societal imbalances. Would he be a cop? A teacher? A lawyer? A community organizer? He’d started a chapter of the NAACP at Catholic University during law school and advocated for the rights of university workers there (much like students at Duke University did recently). That NAACP connection led to a job as a legal fellow in the Washington, D.C. branch office. There he realized that policy was the key to making things better for people like his late friend.
“Everything before that point was building to this,” he said. “When I got to Capitol Hill and saw that all these issues that I wanted to help improve, like things connected to my friend that he didn’t have — educational supports and opportunities, a better living wage, better infrastructure, criminal justice reform — I realized they happened at the policy level. I realized this is where I needed to be.” Soon after, he landed an internship with then–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Jawando’s career began to intertwine with the president's after he saw Obama, a U.S. Senate candidate at the time, deliver his stirring, star-making address at the 2004 Democratic convention. The speech prompted Jawando to speed through Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father. “I think I read it in two days,” he said. Though Jawando’s dad was more present in his life than Obama’s had been in his, the recent Catholic University graduate related to the book’s portrayal of parental angst and struggles with identity. “After I read that and heard him say things like we need to ‘eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white’ — things I'd never heard a politician say — I said, ‘I gotta work for this guy.’”
He wrote a three-page letter and got it delivered to Obama through a family connection to Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York. When Obama, by then a senator, learned of their similar histories, Jawando says he was greeted with a joke: “What are you, my brother?” said the future president. Jawando became a legislative aide in Obama’s senate office in 2005, and their relationship grew over the years; during his time as a White House staffer, Jawando, a former college basketball player, would join the president for games.
The bug to run for Congress bit Jawando later, after a two-year stint in the office of Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. There he learned that the real power in making policies comes from being able to vote on them. Jawando's first race was two years ago, for a seat in Maryland’s House of Delegates, the state equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives. He lost in a close primary. The seat he’s running for now is open thanks to a chain reaction: Barbara Mikulski is retiring after nearly 30 years in the Senate, and Congressman Chris Van Hollen wants to replace her; to do so, he's giving up his job as the 8th District’s current representative. As voters await the state’s April 26 Democratic primary, Jawando knows that, given how liberal his home district is, winning now would essentially guarantee a victory in November.
Still, the only black candidate of the eight people in the race faces long odds in the heavily white 8th District. Despite an endorsement from Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis of Georgia, internal polling from frontrunner Kathleen Matthews in March had Jawando earning only 2 percent of total support. In March, when The Washington Post endorsed Matthews, a corporate executive and wife of MSNBC host Chris, Jawando was one of several candidates not even mentioned. “I have a good aptitude for picking the tough ones,” he said about his chances, laughing.
But Jawando, undaunted, insists that it's important for someone with his totality of American life experience to be on Capitol Hill as policy is being shaped. “In Congress, there’s a lot of millionaires,” he said. “More than ever, we need new leaders that reflect diversity of community, but who also know how to get things done.”
Identity politics have always been intertwined with public policy. It’s why we can’t settle for what Pew Research deemed “the most diverse Congress ever” when only 17 percent of members are something other than white. Whether Jawando will win, and help increase that number as the congressman from his home district, remains to be seen. However, to effectively combat systemic racism, we need more elected officials who have a lived knowledge of racial injustice. We’ve seen more than enough terrible crime policies, like the infamous 1994 crime bill, written and shaped by a white political elite, supposedly with all the best intentions.
There is an empathy gap on Capitol Hill, and we can’t expect those representatives and senators who lack the life experiences of people like Jawando to suddenly figure it out on their own. They need new colleagues. If we expect to see Congress make a real attempt to fix our broken criminal justice system, we’ll need to elect some folks who have felt the real fear that one arrest could ruin their entire life. In less than two weeks, Maryland Democrats have a chance to elect a guy who understands those things. And even if a longshot like Jawando does get back to Capitol Hill, we’ll need a lot more where he came from.