It was a controversial run for public office, not a victory, that launched Noah McCourt's political career.

As a young, black, autistic man, his bid for City Council in the mostly white exurban community of Waconia made waves last November. A history of mental health problems and a recent legal battle to end guardianship by his parents drew ire from his opponents at City Hall, some of whom questioned his ability to serve.

While McCourt lost to an incumbent, he drew 43 percent of the vote. His story rippled across the country, prompting advocates to call the 23-year-old a champion for the developmentally disabled — paving the way for a new generation of more diverse public officials.

The United Nations took notice.

McCourt was formally invited to New York to speak about his experiences in honor of World Autism Awareness Day. On Friday, he sat on a panel titled, "Toward Autonomy and Self-Determination," which examined guardianships, finding employment and developing relationships.

A GoFundMe campaign paid for the airfare and his expenses, surpassing its $500 goal in a month. His father, Craig McCourt, accompanied him.

"He's got some opinions worth sharing and people do want to know what he thinks," said Craig McCourt, a local pastor who is well-known in Waconia.

Noah McCourt has collected diagnoses of Asperger syndrome, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, mood disorder and an attachment disorder. Last year, he successfully petitioned the court to end parental guardianship after building "a compelling case" that he no longer required it, his father said.

Now a freelance political consultant, McCourt said he's focusing on policy rather than rhetoric to further his poltical aspirations and improve the lives of fellow Waconians.

"I'm always looking toward the future and analyzing the possibilities," said McCourt, who describes himself as a moderate Republican with Libertarian leanings. "I see the end goal and I'm mapping out the way to get there in my head."

Politically minded

Childhood was not easy for McCourt, who'd bounced from several homes before landing with Craig and Shirley McCourt.

An Owatonna family adopted him at birth, and he stayed with them until age three. After learning about his autism diagnosis, the family dropped him at a respite home and never returned. He lived in foster care for several years until the McCourts — who'd been searching for a special-needs child — took him in at age 7, sight unseen.

"Someone has to come alongside this kid who's not going to bail on him," Craig McCourt recalls thinking at the time.

As Noah grew, so did the appeal of politics. While other children buried their noses in Harry Potter, McCourt studied Minnesota state statutes. If video privileges were taken away, for example, he'd scurry to find a statute that might get him pardoned.

"He thought that it was 'cruel and unusual punishment,' " his father said.

By 19, McCourt set off to reconnect with his biological parents in Indiana. He took college classes there and waged his first unsuccessful political campaign — a bid for New Albany City Council (winning 15 percent of the vote).

When that didn't work out, he returned to Minnesota with a new mission: broaden the appeal of the GOP to attract a new generation of leaders with a more inclusive message.

McCourt condemned a faction of the group, which he dubbed "party jerks," who opposed the idea of an autistic candidate.

"The dialogue needs to be not 'how can we keep them out,' but 'how can we include them in this process?' " McCourt said.

State Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, said the party sometimes suffers from what he calls "group think," or "lock step," which can limit opposing thought. Jensen, who represents most of Carver County, said the Republican Party is perceived by some as unwelcoming and could do a better job appealing to diverse public servants.

"Noah brings a fresh perspective," Jensen said. "We need young people like him to shift or refresh the narrative."

Since the election, McCourt has served on an assortment of mental health and juvenile justice advisory boards. He said he may consider a run for mayor of Waconia in 2018.

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648