A Test of Leadership

I launched my campaign for Montgomery County Council At-Large nearly 15 months ago because I believe that our county deserves a new kind of leadership. Leadership that centers the voices, aspirations and needs of everyday people in our communities, especially those who have suffered the impacts of structural discrimination and exclusion. Leadership that is committed to building and exercising power with the people they represent. Leadership that is accountable, transparent, and committed to equity and justice.

I also believe that the test of leadership isn’t what a leader does when things are easy, but what she does when the going gets hard, amid challenges, conflict, and stress. You know what and who a leader truly values when you see how she acts in those moments. And so, although the past few weeks have been very difficult, I believe that it is important for you – and for me – that as part of my campaign to serve the people of Montgomery County, we have the opportunity to see how I have faced this moment.

On March 14, an employee brought a complaint of a hostile work environment to my campaign manager, Michelle Whittaker. It is a strong testament not only to the values and practices of our campaign but also to her leadership and integrity that she took prompt and decisive action to ensure that the situation was handled honorably and in a way centered on the employee’s well-being. Because we believe deeply in accountability and worker safety, steps were taken the same day the complaint was received to separate the employee and me from further contact and identify the appropriate process for addressing the complaint. When the employee declined a formal complaint and investigation process, Michelle recommended mediation to both parties and quickly arranged for that mediation with a highly-recommended independent entity, the Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County.

I was shocked, confused, and deeply grieved by this complaint, because the employee was one of my closest friends prior to launching my campaign as well as one of my closest partners on the campaign. But I was also clear that this complaint had to be taken with the utmost seriousness and that any harm caused had to be addressed. I entered into mediation because I am committed to not shying away from difficult and painful conversations – and because as a leader, I have to be accountable for my impacts, both intended and unintended.

Over the course of our two mediation sessions, I had the opportunity to hear from the employee how they experienced our interactions and the impacts on them, and what they believed repair would look like. After hearing from them, I also took time for intensive reflection on my own, so that I could understand how my actions had led to the impacts they shared. I prepared a statement distilling this reflection, which included acknowledgement of my actions and what I believed had shaped them; accountability for both what I had done and not done that impacted the situation; an apology to the employee; and a plan of action for how the employee’s concerns would be addressed.

When I presented the statement to the employee during our second mediation session, they responded that the statement said everything and more than they had hoped, and that they agreed to it, without amendment. We both affirmed our commitment to restorative justice and our respect and care for one another as people. And in the midst of this very difficult situation, I found some hope and some joy, because I believed that we had each been able to live deeply into our values, and model for our community what restorative justice could look like in cases of conflict and harm.

The employee and I both signed the statement of our mediated agreements. Among these agreements were my commitment to share my accountability statement with our full staff and team of advisors, as well as the employee’s affirmation that I and my campaign had acted in good faith and with the goal of restorative justice, and that they would make no further requests of the campaign with regard to this complaint. I proceeded to take action to implement the agreement, calling a meeting of our staff and advisors to hear the statement. To protect both the staff member’s privacy and my own as we sought to vulnerably discuss a deeply sensitive issue, we asked our community to hold this space for us in confidence.

Because I honored and valued the restorative justice process I had created and was executing in collaboration with my former employee, I was once again saddened to hear reports shortly after the first disclosure session with staff and advisors that endorsing partners were discussing the situation and moving to make decisions about the campaign based on the limited information they had received. These were individuals who had not been part of the community that we asked to hold our process and who were not privy to the details either of the mediated agreement or my accountability statement. I contacted each of my endorsing partners to ask them to respect the confidentiality of the process that my former employee and I were undertaking, and to help us maintain the goal of restorative justice to which we had both committed.

Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that conversations and the development of responses outside of the restorative justice process were continuing among progressive community members, including some endorsing partners. During this time, the second session to present my accountability statement to advisors who had not been able to attend the first one took place, 15 days after the first session. At this session, I heard from my former employee that they were no longer satisfied with the agreements they had negotiated with me. I expressed my willingness to return to mediation for further discussion, but they informed me that they would not enter into mediation about any additional concerns until I had ended my campaign.

I could not agree to this as a precondition of further mediation. Terminating my campaign is a decision that would have had impacts on the livelihoods of my staff; the investment of over 1,000 people who have donated to and volunteered for my campaign; and my responsibilities to Montgomery County taxpayers who have financed my campaign through the public election fund. Beyond that, I would be rescinding my commitment to lead policy change for the hundreds of thousands of county residents who are impacted by unaffordable, unsafe, and insecure housing; an economy that doesn’t respect or fairly compensate their labor; and the ongoing devastation of climate and environmental injustice across our communities.

Instead, I took the two-week break from which I have now returned. It has been an important time to renew my strength and my commitment to fighting for justice and equity in Montgomery County. That includes a commitment to continue fighting for and seeking to practice restorative and transformative justice within our communities – because what I and others choose to do in this situation signals to members of our communities whether restorative justice is a real concept that can be honored and upheld. This is a critically important question for our schools, our legal system, our workplaces, and so many other settings where we need new models for how to address conflict and harm that include respecting one another’s humanity and dignity.

Accountability and transparency are important from our leaders. It is what I have sought to demonstrate throughout this process and what I remain committed to. I completed the actions agreed to in mediation and have been carrying out the action plan detailed in my accountability statement, because the process and the agreements we developed are important to me. I remain open to addressing further concerns through mediation or any other appropriate, independent process that would support my former employee and me to develop a just resolution to this situation.

I continue to organize for transformative change in our political system and in the policies that govern the lives of over 1 million Montgomery County residents. This campaign has always been about our community. I am deeply committed to fighting for safe, accessible, and affordable housing for every resident; an economy that supports and empowers workers and small businesses; and land use and transportation policies that help us fight the existential threat of climate change. I am deeply committed to our vision of a Montgomery County where every single person can thrive. 

I am thankful for all of those who continue to organize with me, supporting our collective vision and exercising our collective leadership. I mourn the loss of the friends, colleagues, and partners with whom I am no longer able to work on the things we had envisioned together. I move forward with faith – the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not yet seen – that healing and justice are within our ability, and that we will find the practices and resources we need to achieve them.

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