Craig Rice: From Programming to Politics

by Devasena Sitaram '21 and Anika Seth '21 for Silver Quest

Craig Rice
The Blair Magnet, while centered around rigorous STEM education, can take students on unexpected paths: from the sawdust covered R&E classroom to the legislative chamber of the Montgomery County Council. Such is the case with Magnet alumnus Craig Rice (Class of ‘90), Distinguished Speaker at the 2015 Senior Research Project Convention and the youngest African American politician to have ever been part of the Council. He will be the first Magnet alumnus to be inducted into the Blair Alumni Association’s Hall of Fame in November.

After graduating from the Magnet, Rice went on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to major in aerospace engineering. He returned to Maryland due to a family tragedy and continued on his STEM-centric path, graduating with a degree in computer science from the University of Maryland at College Park.

He explains that his choice to study computer science was because it “was a strength of [his],” and he could always “fall back on it because of the experience [he] got from Blair.” Democracy and civic engagement, however, had always been at the forefront of his interest -- he even ran for class president in high school. He intuitively understood representative democracy as valuable from a young age: his parents moved to Montgomery County from Virginia and South Carolina in hopes of mitigating some of the discrimination they had faced while in the south. “That was sort of the foundation for my understanding,” he says, “[my childhood] had this hyperfocus on the importance of the legislative process.”

Growing up in the Northgate Community of Montgomery County, Rice was exposed to a diverse array of influential leaders in the political community. Across the street lived George Haley, postmaster general in the Bush Administration, and Adrienne Mandel, former delegate in the Maryland State Senate. He had the opportunity to meet Rosa Parks and Alex Haley, whom he describes as “[not only] actors of change in the Black community but also actors of change holistically throughout [American culture].”

Individuals like these inspired him to build his political career while at UMD. He joined the Montgomery County Young Democrats, a group that, as Rice explains, “won [the] Activist of the Year [award] for really crusading to get young people involved in politics and giving them a voice.” Simultaneously, Rice was motivated by his professor for Government and Politics at College Park: Hank Heller. As a Maryland delegate that represented District 19, Heller planted the idea of going into politics in Rice’s mind, citing a natural “understanding and passion” for the role of public office inherent in Rice’s character.

Thus began his endeavors into politics after graduating from college. However, at the time, “politics was a side hustle,” said Rice. “It was for outside of a professional career.” During his time as a senior sales manager for Marriott, he would go on Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of Marriott so often that folks began to call him Congressman Rice.

In 2005, he quit his job at Marriott and announced to his pregnant wife that he was running for office in the Maryland House of Delegates. “I’ve been working for Marriott six years,” he told her. “[But there is] something missing.” He won the election by a slim margin of 162 votes. Speaking to his victory he recalls, “Looking back, being in elected office since 2006, all of what I had been exposed to over the years had been leading me towards [public office].” He served one term in the Maryland House, and in 2010 was elected to the Montgomery County Council.

Rice brought a fresh outlook to the table, his perspective stemming from his experiences at Blair. During high school, he participated in Symphonic Band, Architecture Club, and recreational baseball. In these activities he gained the “ability to talk and network with a bunch of people, not just the Magnet [students],” and learned the importance of “talking to anybody, regardless of their background.” In fact, a classmate even taught him to juggle on the bus after school. Through these experiences, he learned the value of bringing together different perspectives -- an essential principle to understand in politics.

Even the small things he learned in classes came in handy in unusual situations. “Knowledge is always incredibly powerful and incredibly marketable,” he counsels. In a recent meeting with Apple as part of his capacity in the Montgomery County Council, he brought up his background in the Logo programming language, which he learned in the Computer Science classes at Blair. Mentioning his expertise instantly “elevated his status” and he was seen in a completely different light by the Apple team.

Speaking on advice for current magnet students who may feel obligated to follow a STEM career, he says, “Follow your heart. It’s great to have the background you have.” Even without going into a traditional “Magnet” field, Blair’s intense STEM education is applicable in virtually every aspect of life. For example, Rice explained that his wife, who owns a salon, wanted to create a riser that would maximize efficiency by functioning as a pedicure chair but also allowing stylists to do customers’ hair. Rice told his wife that he could make it. “Give me the specs, [I told her]. I’ll use mathematical formulas, weight distribution. In her salon in downtown Bethesda right now, it’s right there. You never know how you’re going to use the [training] that you have.”

From a typical Magnet student to a force for political change, Councilmember Craig Rice exemplifies the ends to which a Magnet education can take a student. As the chair of the Education and Culture Committee for the Montgomery County Council, Rice is a passionate advocate for career readiness and quality education in schools. “I still know what it means to have a highly advanced education that can make you globally competitive,” he says, “[a]nd we [have to] do more to invest in education.”