Montgomery Township Elects First African-American to Municipal Government
By Barbara A. Preston December 8, 2020
Shelly L. Bell made history in November when voters elected her as the first African-American committeewoman in the history of Montgomery Township. She will be sworn in at the Township Committee meeting on January 7.
Her campaign focused on her platform of issues — enhanced connections between government and residents; protecting health during COVID, with a focus on mental health; mobilizing resources to support small businesses; preserving the environment; and, tucked in there, ensuring “actively anti-racist policies and procedures.”
While the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was prominent in the national news, race was never an overt issue, or a driving force in her campaign.
“When I started volunteering with the Montgomery Democratic Organization, I learned no other African-Americans had served on the Montgomery Township Committee,” Bell said. “Although, Wilbert Donnay ran a strong campaign in 2014, I think it’s essential that our government reflects our diverse community population.”
Bell handily defeated her opponent Hossein Zolfaghair (I), earning about 80 percent of the votes. Bell earned 8,435 votes to Zolfaghari’s 1,973.
Bell said she knew, when she was campaigning, that she would become the first African-American elected to the Montgomery Township Committee if elected.
“I have been the first to do many things in Montgomery,” she says. “I am the first African-American on the Planning Board and to serve as vice-chair of the Montgomery Democratic Organization.”
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Bell was a last-minute candidate for the Democratic Party. When Mayor Sadaf Jaffer (D) suddenly dropped out of the race for personal reasons in August, the Democrats put Bell on the ballot in her place.
With Jaffer's endorsement, Bell says she is "standing on the shoulders" of those who came before her. (Jaffer also made history, as the first Muslim woman elected mayor of a town in the United States.)
"My win is a celebration of unity and diversity," Bell says. "I am honored to be elected to this position. This is a celebratory and historic moment for me, especially when much of the country is being rocked by racial-equality protests.
"During the Women's Suffrage, African American women were often overlooked. I am excited because running for office has been a political goal of mine for many years. I'm glad I followed my passion and was not deterred by naysayers, and neither should others — especially those who have the heart to serve."
Before her candidacy, Bell says she was intensely involved with many initiatives and conversations focusing on the BLM movement.
“Given current and historical relations between Blacks and police, race issues are relevant in Montgomery,” she says. “However, there have been fruitful honest conversations with the Montgomery Police Department and the Black community and the conversation is still on-going. As someone who participated in these meetings, I can say without hesitation, these conversations were a significant first step in developing a community collaboration. We can only grow by learning and having open communication and interchange.”
Bell added that the police department is open to suggestions about how they can better serve everyone within Montgomery Township.
“I am eager to work with our local police department to hopefully change any negative dynamics in our town to have a mutually positive relationship,” she says. “Captain (Jim) Gill knows first-hand how I’m looking forward to our ‘Coffee with Cops.’”
Bell is also a member of One Montgomery. Former Mayor Mark Conforti (R) formed “One Montgomery” in 2018 as a new mayoral ad hoc committee. The goal is to “build and promote a community that is proud, united, and looks out for its neighbors,” he had said.
The committee includes prominent civic, cultural, and religious leaders of the Montgomery community, as well as the mayor, township administrator, and police captain, who act as discussion facilitators. The mission of the group is to help raise awareness of cultural events, appreciation of diversity, and encourage civic engagement and volunteerism among the 23,000 residents of Montgomery.
“I am committed to the work of making Montgomery a safer and better town through anti-racism initiatives,” Bell says. "I am looking forward to building consensus and relationships across party lines. I am Township Committee Woman–Elect for all Montgomery." ■