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Six women poised to change the face of the Montgomery County Council

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

By Katie Shepherd | Sunday, November 13, 2022

Montgomery County voters elected a historic slate of candidates to the County Council on Tuesday, adding Latina, Asian and Black representatives to a body that will be majority-female for the first time.

The six incoming members — all women — have their own priorities and beliefs that range from moderate to ultraliberal. On the whole, the changes are expected to shift the body further left in a deep-blue county that already prides itself as a haven for progressive ideas and policymaking. “I’m really excited that we finally have a council that reflects the rich and beautiful diversity of our county,” said Laurie-Anne Sayles, who was elected to an at-large seat Tuesday.

In interviews, the newcomers cited plans to boost affordable housing and pedestrian safety and road quality, bolster the county’s mental and behavioral health resources, restore jobs lost in the pandemic and improve wages. Several campaigned on promises to improve equity for disenfranchised residents here, in one of the wealthiest counties in a state frequently ranked among the wealthiest in America by median household income. Similar pledges lifted candidates across the state and nation to “firsts” this cycle: voters elected Maryland’s first Black governor, first Black attorney general and first immigrant and woman of color to serve as lieutenant governor. Nationally, voters elected the first female governors in Massachusetts and New York, and the first openly lesbian governors in Oregon and Massachusetts. Arkansas also elected its first female governor, Republican Sarah Sanders, though her politics are a stark contrast to the Democrats who made history in other states.

In Montgomery, where people of color make up nearly 6 in 10 of the county’s 1.05 million residents, incoming council members said they recognized the significance of representing people who aren’t accustomed to seeing themselves in the county’s elected leadership.

In Montgomery’s long neglected east county, a new map stirs hope for stronger representationThe new members include an accountant, a mayor, a Venezuelan immigrant and dreamer, an adoptee who serves as an assistant state attorney general, a first-generation Chinese American born and raised in the county and a first-generation Jamaican American who works in public health.

In addition to Sayles, also elected Tuesday were Marilyn Balcombe (D-District 2), Kate Stewart (D-District 4), Kristin Mink (D-District 5), Natali Fani-González (D-District 6) and Dawn Luedtke (D-District 7). They will join five incumbents who secured reelection.

The incoming council will be tasked with taking up implementation of the controversial Thrive 2050 plan guiding growth and development that passed last month, appointing a new planning board after the entire body resigned amid scandal earlier this year, and continuing efforts on police reforms and steering Montgomery’s coronavirus recovery.

The council is expanding from nine to 11 members this year under a plan voters backed to alter the body’s makeup in 2020. District lines were redrawn to create seats that better represent residents in the eastern reaches of the county. Throughout the campaign cycle, voters and candidates have questioned whether the equity-minded county government has done enough for the county’s east side, where immigrant communities and predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods have for decades gone without investment that helped other parts of the county prosper.

Mink will represent one of the new districts carved out to better represent east county residents, which consolidates Four Corners through Burtonsville. Mink ran on a liberal platform supporting rent stabilization and eviction protections, free bus rapid transit and substantial economic investment in White Oak and Burtonsville Crossing, among other progressive issues.

Many of those priorities have been hot-button issues for the council in the past. Newcomers Balcombe and Luedtke have positioned themselves as fiscal moderates, with major priorities that include fostering economic growth, increasing jobs and supporting small businesses.

Will Jawando (D-At Large), who has endeavored to push the council left since joining the body in 2018, hopes to see the incoming council revisit issues like rent stabilization, public safety reforms and progressive tax policies — all efforts he pushed but had to compromise on with the more moderate council of the last four years. “I am excited that the new council will reflect the dynamism and rich diversity of our county,” Jawando told The Washington Post.

A largely new council also presents an opportunity for a reset of the at-times tense relationship between the county’s legislators and County Executive Marc Elrich, who narrowly survived a primary challenge this year. Elrich depends on the council to advance his legislative agenda, but the two branches of government have sometimes been out-of-step — even as they worked toward common goals on issues like economic development and the pandemic. But after Tuesday’s election, Elrich — who championed the effort to add new council districts to better reflect the county — and many of the new council members voiced excitement about the opportunity to work together and, hopefully, forge a better relationship moving forward.

“It is not unusual to have differences of opinions between an executive and the council,” Elrich said, adding that he is optimistic about working with new members who have a “more progressive agenda.”

He said he expects his political priorities to align well with those more left-leaning new members and anticipates better success pursuing ideas that hit a dead end with the previous council, like long-term rent stabilization and increasing the number of affordable units attached to new developments.

“If you’re only one voice or two voices, it can be hard to break through the noise,” he said. Montgomery voters on Tuesday voiced concerns over investment in east county, protecting abortion access, fixing roads and funding schools. But no issue animated voters like housing affordability and wages.

In a liberal Maryland suburb, social justice reshapes the political debate over housingAmina Manguera, 28, moved back home with her mother during the pandemic to save money on rent. At the polls on Tuesday, the pair cast votes supporting Stewart because of her positions on keeping housing costs affordable so people do not have to leave Montgomery to find a place to live.

“We like the area,” said her mother, Jennifer Manguera. “But we want it to stay affordable, where we can actually live and do things.”

Creating and maintaining affordable housing was a shared concern among new members — though they had varying ideas for how to solve the county’s housing woes. Stewart, the outgoing mayor of Takoma Park, emphasized the county’s need to make it easier for renters to become homeowners by funding programs that assist funding down payments and deferred maintenance. Others support adding new units near transit lines and providing legal representation for people facing evictions. Still others favor rent stabilization and expanding tenant associations.

The No. 1 priority for Fani-González, who will represent a new east county district, District 6, is making Wheaton’s streets — especially Georgia Avenue — safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

“That’s the heart of Wheaton, that’s my community,” she said. “We deserve to live in a place that connects streets and parks and libraries and businesses without getting killed just crossing the street.”

A Venezuelan immigrant, who moved to the United States with her mother as a child, Fani-González cut her teeth in politics with CASA de Maryland, going door to door to persuade conservative voters to support the Maryland Dream Act. She was an advocate for the development of the Purple Line and served seven years on the Montgomery County Park and Planning Commission.

Most of the new members emphasized the importance of growing jobs within the county to recoup pandemic-era losses and help the region compete with its heavyweight neighbors in northern Virginia.

“My focus is business and jobs and the economy,” Balcombe told The Post. She wants to focus on making it easier for small businesses to navigate the county’s regulatory requirements, and favors expanding certificate programs and involving local businesses in the curriculum-development so young workers’ skills will match employers’ needs.

Balcombe also said she was ready to tackle the thorny issues that are sure to come up as the county implements the Thrive 2050 plan, which recommends zoning changes to allow duplexes, triplexes and small apartment buildings in areas previously limited to single-family homes. That plan passed last month after three years of contentious public debate over how the county should absorb a growing population and address its housing shortage. Montgomery County Council passes antisemitism resolution amid pushbackOpponents said adding denser housing to neighborhoods originally designed for single-family homes would cause traffic congestion, crowded schools, and overtaxed police and emergency response services; supporters said the plan would make the county more walkable, affordable and transit-oriented.

Luedtke, who works for the state attorney general, said she wants to work on issues of public safety, education and health equity. She said she would support expanding the county’s diversion courts that allow nonviolent offenders to receive treatment for addiction or mental health issues instead of serving jail time. She also supports community policing and favors a law enforcement strategy that is “not simply being a reactionary force.”

As a representative of District 7, which encompasses parts of Upcounty and Midcounty, Luedtke also said she will advocate for policies that support the Agricultural Reserve in Montgomery — including supporting emergency preparedness and resiliency programs to make sure the county can produce and supply the food it needs.

Sayles also ran on supporting local food production there and backed strengthening education and career-readiness programs, funding rental assistance and addressing climate change by supporting better transportation infrastructure including the Purple Line and the bus rapid transit system.

Andrew Friedson (D-District 1), often perceived as one of the most moderate members of the council, said he expected the new members to increase debate over policy in a “very productive, constructive and healthy way.”

“I think that there are six new council members who all bring in different perspectives,” he said. “Generally, there’s agreement on what we would like to do. I think the question is the approach and how we handle those issues.”

Shwetha Surendran contributed reporting

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