A University of Maryland professor is one of the newest members of the Maryland General Assembly.

Del. Sarah Wolek, a senior faculty specialist in this university’s business school, filled a vacant District 16 delegate seat at the beginning of April after being chosen by the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee.

Wolek replaced former Del. Ariana Kelly, who was appointed to District 16’s state Senate seat. Kelly took former Sen. Susan Lee’s seat after Gov. Wes Moore appointed Lee to be Maryland’s secretary of state.

Wolek did not formally assume the role until April 3, one week before the end of the 2023 legislative session. She will serve on the Appropriations Committee.

“There was a lot going on, but I was really grateful to be there,” Wolek said. “I saw it sort of all come together.”

During her week in session, Wolek, one of three South Asian members in the Maryland General Assembly, was able to cast votes on key bills and familiarize herself with the Maryland State House.

Wolek has been raising her family in District 16 — part of Montgomery County including North Bethesda, Cabin John and Potomac — since 2010. She also attended public high school in the county.

As a state delegate, Wolek’s primary goal is to create policies that support human development, including legislation addressing climate change and gun violence, she said. Wolek especially wants to address the wellbeing, anxiety and trauma of those impacted by gun violence.

Her first priority is connecting more with District 16’s constituents, she said.

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Wolek brings the perspective of a mother with young children to her role, something Kelly said is much needed.

“We have a lot of families in our community and so that voice is really, really important and can sometimes get lost in politics,” Kelly said.

Del. Marc Korman appreciates that his new colleague has a history of political and civil engagement in the District 16 community. Wolek and Korman previously served on the Bethesda Urban Partnership board.

“I think both her work in the federal government and her work now… give her a really great policy expertise,” Korman said.

Korman said Wolek has experience with housing and mental health – topics that have become more prevalent in recent years.

Before working at this university’s business school, Wolek worked in the federal government with the housing and urban development department and the White House management and budget office.

At this university, Wolek founded the Intentional Life Lab, which helps students develop life plans and prioritizes mental health and wellbeing.

Cyrus Belsoi, a former student and teaching assistant in one of Wolek’s classes, said he views Wolek as a mentor. Belsoi graduated from this university in spring of 2022, but still wrote letters urging Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee members to appoint Wolek to the state house.

“It’s really cool to watch a professor still care for you outside of their classroom,” he said. “I think it’s just a testament to her character as a whole.”

Wolek fostered an environment of holistic learning at this university, Belsoi said, and demonstrated that she cared about students as individuals.

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Wolek’s appointment comes amid recent criticism from some lawmakers and community members on the appointment process for legislators.

Under the current process, candidates apply for vacant seats through a central committee. Members of the committee, who are elected by voters in primary elections, choose which candidate to nominate for the seat. The governor then officially appoints this nominee.

Kelly, who went through that appointment process during the 2023 legislative session, thinks that a special elections model could help citizens have more input in filling legislative vacancies. Bills to change this process have failed to pass through the General Assembly in recent years.

“I think four years is really too long to have an appointee in there without the voters having a voice,” Kelly said.

But one benefit to the appointment process, Kelly said, is that it is less expensive to seek an appointment than to run for an election. This has recently allowed for more diverse candidates, she added. Kelly wants a public financing system for state legislative races to encourage more diverse candidates to run for elections every cycle.

Wolek also thinks there are ways to improve the appointment process, such as prohibiting candidates from lobbying central committee members for an appointment before a vacancy is officially posted. During Wolek’s appointment process, some of her opponents started campaigning months before her. Despite these roadblocks, Wolek said she is ready to work closely with the District 16 delegation in her new position.

“They’re talented, dedicated, smart, kind individuals and I’m excited to be able to work with them,” she said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that Sarah Wolek served on the Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Committee. This story has been updated.