Noah McCourt isn’t a typical City Council candidate in Waconia, a scenic, mostly white exurban community tucked into Carver County. He’s black, 22 years old and autistic.
He also has mental health problems and until last month, his father was his legal guardian.
McCourt’s ability to hold elected office has been questioned by his opponent, the incumbent, and also by the mayor of Waconia and the local newspaper because of his history of guardianship and a run-in with police last year.
“The more I’ve gotten to know about Noah, the more disappointed I am in his candidacy, to be honest,” said Jim Sanborn, Waconia’s mayor. “He seems like a troubled young man.”
But McCourt’s supporters say he’s passionate and knowledgeable, and his challenges make him especially qualified to address issues such as affordable housing and social services. Advocates say McCourt also is paving the way for a generation of leaders with developmental disabilities who will bring a new kind of diversity to public office.
“I think we are on the edge of a great wave of young adults with an autism or Asperger’s [syndrome] diagnosis entering the public eye, going to college and into the workforce,” said Jonah Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota. “Somebody who has … learned to maneuver the social society we’ve created despite an autism diagnosis — they’ve developed a real skill set.”
Guardianships are common for young autistic adults because they may take longer to develop certain life skills, said Jason Schellack, director of the Autism Advocacy and Law Center in Minneapolis. But once they mature, he said, they can be restored to competency under the law. Though Schellack doesn’t know McCourt, he called his candidacy “more of an inspiration” than a problem.
McCourt’s parents still have power of attorney to conduct his financial affairs and are authorized to make decisions about his health care if he cannot do so. Neither gives them much control over his life, McCourt said, unless he’s physically or mentally incapacitated.
Passionate about politics
Royal families fascinated McCourt as a youngster, said his dad, Craig McCourt. His interest eventually switched to politics when he learned that the United States is a democracy without any royalty.
“He has been politically minded for as long as I can remember,” said Craig McCourt, a lay minister who is well-known in Waconia. “He’s got a very strong sense of justice and equality.”
Craig McCourt described his son as charming yet introverted, a passionate guy with a gift for communication.
Noah McCourt, who favors sweater vests, often walks around downtown Waconia, where folks at City Hall know him by name.
McCourt was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 3 and his parents, Craig and Shirley, adopted him several years later. His guardianship papers, filed in 2012, show that he also has diagnoses of anxiety, attention deficit disorder, a mood disorder and an attachment disorder. Court documents described the 17-year-old McCourt as “emotionally and socially immature and quite vulnerable.”
But in September, McCourt petitioned the court to end the guardianship. He “built a compelling case” that he didn’t need it anymore, his father said.
McCourt said he’s now a freelance political consultant and has finished the class requirements to become a nursing assistant but hasn’t taken the state test.
Several years ago, he moved to Indiana alone to be near his biological family. He took college classes there and ran for the New Albany City Council, “mostly for the experience aspect,” he said, garnering 15 percent of the vote.
Now back in Minnesota, McCourt serves on the Carver County Mental Health Advisory Board and was on the Human Rights Commission in Chaska for six months last year. He said he considers himself an advocate for the developmentally disabled.
“I feel strongly about all of the issues they’re confronting,” McCourt said. He describes himself as a moderate Republican with Libertarian leanings. He said he’s running for office because he wants to improve the quality of life for Waconia’s senior citizens, lower property taxes, and reduce “excessive” regulations to make the city a friendlier place for business.
“It’s like we knit this gigantic red carpet and invite the businesses to walk down it, and then we pull it out from under them,” McCourt said.
His Facebook page is filled with song lyrics from Destiny’s Child and Pink, jabs at local and national Democrats and personal posts about dancing the waltz and singing karaoke.
The Waconia Patriot published an article in September questioning McCourt’s decisionmaking abilities, citing his autism and mental health diagnoses.
Soon after, McCourt, who thought the article was “slanted,” rolled around downtown Waconia in a wheelchair to protest the city’s high property taxes, but also to mock the article’s suggestion that his diagnoses made him an unsuitable candidate, he said.
“The only thing really disabling in this town is the crushing weight of property taxes,” he said.
In the public eye
In March, McCourt was renting a room in Chaska when he got drunk, punched a wall and broke a table, according to police reports. His charge of fourth-degree property damage remains pending.
McCourt said at the time of the incident he was frustrated with family and health problems, and having medication troubles. He acknowledged that he also had been drinking. The police report said that his blood alcohol level was 0.154, and that he could barely stand.
The Waconia Patriot mentioned the criminal charge in an article, and both Sanborn, the mayor, and McCourt’s opponent — City Councilman Charles Erickson — have made an issue of it in the race.
Erickson, a chartered financial analyst who has been on the City Council for four years, said in an e-mail that the “public records speak for themselves.”
“If a candidate has been found to be incapable of making decisions regarding his own life but wants to make decisions affecting the entire city, I think that is an issue,” he wrote.
McCourt said that Erickson’s criticisms “are slightly hypocritical.” He noted that in 2014 the Federal Election Commission discovered a $130,000 cash-balance discrepancy in campaign funding reports when Erickson was treasurer for Julianne Ortman’s re-election campaign as a state senator.
Erickson said the campaign was never missing any money. He blamed the campaign manager for contracting services the campaign couldn’t afford, and said the FEC ultimately fined the campaign $1,090 for failing to file a quarterly report in time.
McCourt counts Carver County Commissioner Randy Maluchnik, who has bipolar disorder, as a mentor and political ally. Maluchnik blamed McCourt’s legal troubles on medication problems, and said he speaks from experience about the difficulty of managing medications. Maluchnik said McCourt is excited about working in local government, and he’s a good listener.
“I think he has a shot,” Maluchnik said.