Will Montgomery County elect more women to the county council in 2022?

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When the dust settled from the wild 2018 election — one that saw dozens of Democrats compete for County Council seats — Montgomery County wound up with just one woman on the nine-member council, Nancy Navarro (D).

Montgomery now has a record low number of female  councilmembers, a trend at odds with the county’s reputation as one of the state’s most liberal bastions.

But that’s about to change, according to political professionals, activists and women who plan to run for the council in the 2022 elections — including some who came within striking distance in the 2018 elections.

“A county of over a million people should absolutely have more than one woman on a nine-person legislative body,” said Diana Conway, president of the Women’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County. “Elected representation should reflect the population.”

There will be a number of targets for politically ambitious Montgomery County women — and men — to aim for in 2022.

When Montgomery County voters next head to the polls, they will elect not nine but 11 county council members. Two additional district seats were approved by voters through a ballot referendum in the 2020 election, meaning there will be seven district seats up for grabs along with four at-large seats whose council members are elected countywide.

When the dust settled from the wild 2018 election, Montgomery County wound up with just one woman on the nine-member council, Nancy Navarro. (Courtesy Montgomery County Council)

Navarro, who represents a seat in the East County, and two other incumbents, Councilmembers Hans Riemer (D), who holds an at-large seat, and Craig Rice (D), who represents the Upcounty, are term limited. Their collective departures will leave at least three vacancies on the council, coupled with the two new district seats, which will create a total of five open seats in the next election.

Other councilmembers could end up being challenged and incumbency — especially for first-term lawmakers — is no guarantee of reelection.

“I expect a robust field of talented women from across the county and across the political spectrum,” Conway said. “ … There’s a hunger for balanced representation, and women have a distinct voice.”

In an interview, Navarro said she hopes the 2022 election will rectify the gender imbalance.

Navarro said she applauds her male colleagues for their support on women’s issues, and for treating her respectfully and fairly, but she won’t sugarcoat her council experience.

“There are times when I have encountered erasure, which is something that women face not just in politics, but in the boardroom, in the private and corporate sectors,” Navarro said. “It is something that we need to address as a whole. It is illustrative of the society we live in, in general. It’s not a secret.”

When the 13-year-veteran lawmaker was asked if she would liken the council to an all boys’ club, she said it is, from the perspective of county leadership.

“When I’m in meetings with the county executive and my colleagues, it’s not lost on me that I’m the only woman in that space,” Navarro said. “When I look at the photos of the previous councils and when I started serving, at that time it was four women. Then you just started seeing less and less, and then just one. It’s so disheartening to see that, while at the same time, it is such an honor to be there. It’s been a bittersweet situation that I hope will be remedied in 2022.”

Redistricting

On top of the increased number of seats on the Montgomery County Council, a decennial redistricting process is  currently underway — and that could scramble the county’s political terrain. Just as congressional and legislative district lines are redrawn every 10 years following the latest Census numbers, the Montgomery County requires the county council to update its boundaries every 10 years, based on population changes.

From 2010 to 2019, the county’s population grew approximately 8% — from 971,777 to 1,050,688 residents, according to Sonya Healy, a spokeswoman for the council.

Over the course of 2021, new councilmanic district lines will be recommended by a newly appointed 11-member redistricting commission determined by the Council.

The commission must present a plan of proposed districts to the county council by Nov. 15, according to county officials. Within 30 days, the council must hold a public hearing.

“If within 90 days after presentation of the Commission’s plan no other law reestablishing the boundaries of the Council districts has been enacted, then the plan as submitted becomes law,” according to a council statement.

The deadlines coincide with the candidacy filing deadline, which currently is Feb. 24, 2022.

Conway said the new districts, along with the county’s public campaign financing opportunities, should be a big draw for new candidates.

“As to Republican women — and newcomers of any stripe — they may decide it’s time to step forward because of the smaller districts and the five open seats we’ll have in [the] 2022 election,” Conway said.

Historically, the Democratic primary elections in Montgomery determine officeholders, due to the party’s dominance among registered voters.

As of January, there were 414,842 registered Democrats, 105,628 Republicans and 150,689 unaffiliated voters.

While all of Montgomery’s top office holders — the nine-member County Council and the County Executive — are Democrats, Republicans will field candidates in 2022, former county GOP Chairman Dennis Melby vowed in December.

“After seeing so many Republican women elected to Congress in 2020 and Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court it’s certainly time we get back to some strong Republican women in local government,” Melby said. “It’s been too long.”

Melby said he would like to see former Dist. 15 state delegate candidate Laurie Halverson (R) run for office. County Republican leaders plan to begin talks with potential candidates interested in running for office in a couple of months.

“Certainly with public financing it’s so much easier for the candidates to raise money,” Melby said, adding that many of the potential candidates he has in mind — both men and women — have diverse backgrounds, including from  including from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and South America. Montgomery became a majority-minority county in 2011.

“They all came because they wanted to make a difference in this country,” Melby said. “They perceive the council as being left leaning. They want to get on the ballot and see what they can do about it.”

But several Republicans interviewed for this story said they were concerned about political gerrymandering taking place in the redistricting process and they may not run.

“Yes, I am considering running again in 2022,” said 2018 at-large candidate Robert Dyer. “I want to see the outcome of the redistricting process before making a decision. The current districts are ridiculously gerrymandered to ensure a one-party system.”

Phil Andrews, a former four-term county Democratic councilman who spearheaded the county’s public campaign finance system which was first used in 2018, said the council’s ultimate decision on the district maps will be of great consequence.

“To say that potential council candidates in the 2022 election have a strong interest in the district boundaries of the final map would be an understatement,” Andrews wrote in an email.

Susan Heltemes, a political activist and chair of the District 18 Democratic Breakfast Club, which hosts prominent political figures monthly, sees an opening for Republicans.

“There could very well be a Republican [winner] both by district and at-large, depending on redistricting,” Heltemes said. “Anything is possible. A Republican can get elected.”

Steve Silverman, the former Montgomery County economic development director and two-term Democratic councilman, disagrees.

“I don’t think the council will redraw districts that would make it competitive for Republicans,” he said.

A Republican last won an election in Montgomery County in 2002; three Republicans were voted out of office four years later.

Currently, Democrats outnumber Republicans in all of the councilmanic districts.

In District 1, Democrats outnumber Republicans 3.6-to-1; in District 2, 3-to-1; in District 3, 3.6-to-1; in District 4, 3.5-to-1; and, in District 5, 7.5-to-1, according to figures provided by the state elections board.

When you factor in unaffiliated voters, the Democratic advantage tightens.

In District 1, Democrats outnumber Republicans and independents 1.5-to-1; in District 2, 1.3-to-1; in District 3, 1.5-to-1; in District 4, 1.6-to-1; and, in District 5, 2.6-to-1.

In Maryland, independents can’t vote in partisan primary elections.

The consensus among political insiders is that incumbents who hold district seats should expect to be challenged in 2022 — in the Democratic primary or the general election.

“It won’t be a cakewalk for the incumbent council,” said Heltemes.

“It’s wide open,” Silverman said. “I’d be surprised if [district] incumbents didn’t have challengers.”

Former candidates can be competitive in subsequent elections because they have a base to work from.

“There is a long list of people who ran for office and lost the first time and won the second time,” said Silverman — who lost a legislative race in 1994 before winning a council seat four years later.

Potential 2022 candidates

Interest groups, including the real estate community and labor unions, are already reaching out to potential Democratic candidates.

Several potential candidates for the 2022 election have already expressed interest in running for the County Council. Others have said they are considering it or have already ruled it out.

In mid-February, Brandy Brooks, a progressive activist who finished seventh in the 33-candidate primary for the four at-large council seats in 2018, announced that she would try again next year.

Brandy Brooks finished seventh in the 33-candidate primary for the four at-large council seats in 2018. (Courtesy Brandy Brooks)

“We are a microcosm of the United States — the same rich diversity of people and communities, and also the same persistent challenges around racial injustice, income inequality, housing security, environmental sustainability, and fair representation,” Brooks said at her announcement. “These challenges have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The time is now for bold, visionary, and progressive leadership, and Montgomery County residents deserve leaders who put people first.”

Brooks reported raising over $19,000 during the first five days she was a candidate, according to The Seventh State political website.

Here is a list of some of the potential candidates for council — though certainly not all:

At-large Seats — 1 Vacancy in 2022. Incumbent Councilmember Hans Riemer (D) will leave his seat due to term limits. First-term Councilmembers Gabriel Albornoz, Evan Glass and William Jawando will be up for re-election. Besides Brooks, here are other potential candidates:

— Gloria Aparicio Blackwell, director of Community Engagement, University of Maryland. Blackwell is considering a run, but she is not ready to say whether it would be at-large or in a district. She lives in Gaithersburg, which is currently in the 3rd District, and was mentioned by Navarro as a candidate she’d support.

“At this time, I am in the exploration stage,” said Blackwell, a native of Venezuela. “This county is my home and I would like to see what I can do to be part of bringing this county to a new level of success for all. My passion is education, health and dear to my heart the immigrant community.”

— Shruti Bhatnagar, a former at-large council candidate in the 2018 Democratic primary with a wealth of public service experience, did not respond to comment requests. Many interviewed for this story believe she will at least consider another run.

“She’s definitely thinking about it,” a county official said.

— Bill Conway, husband of Diana Conway, finished 10th among 33 candidates at-large in the Democratic primary. He said he is not likely to run, “but I never rule anything out.”

— Hoan Dang ran at-large in the Democratic primary in 2018 and finished 9th among 33 candidates. He was endorsed by then-county executive Isiah Leggett (D). Dang did not respond to requests for comment.

— Loretta Jean Garcia ran at-large in the 2018 Democrat primary and finished 14th among 33 candidates. She did not respond to a request for comment.

— Sunil Dasgupta lost a 2020 Montgomery County Board of Education at-large race but received over 200,000 votes.

“I’m literally just picking up my life,” Dasgupta laughed when asked about running in 2022. “Once you run, there’s always a possibility you would run again. It gets easier. I will consider it, but it’s unlikely.”

— Shebra Evans, a second-term member of the Montgomery County Board of Education, has been mentioned as a prospective candidate for an at-large or district seat. “I am flattered that my name has been mentioned as a candidate for County Council. However, at this time my immediate focus is on a safe return to in-person learning for students and staff,” Evans said.

Natali-Fani Gonzalez, vice chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board, was mentioned by Navarro as a candidate she’d support for a Council run. (Courtesy Natali-Fani Gonzalez)

— Natali-Fani Gonzalez, vice chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board, who ran unsuccessfully for House of Delegates in 2014, was mentioned by Navarro as a candidate she’d support for a Council run. “I’m completely focused on my work as vice chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board,” Fani-Gonzalez said in response.

— Hamza Khan, a former candidate for a House of Delegates seat, said it’s possible he will consider a run for the council in 2022, but it’s way too early to tell, in part because he recently lost three relatives to COVID-19. It’s also possible Khan could run again for the legislature, if Dist. 15 Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D) runs for comptroller, as some party insiders predicted.

— Melissa McKenna, a former vice president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations and 2018 at-large candidate, said she is “ruminating” about a possible bid.

— Laurie-Anne Sayles, a Gaithersburg City Councilwoman, did not return a request for comment, but several political figures mentioned Sayles as a likely candidate for either an at-large or district seat. As the lines are currently drawn, she lives in District 3. Sayles said it was too early to talk about 2022.

“I am flattered that my name has been mentioned as a candidate for County Council,” she said in an email. “At this time I am focused on running for re-election to the Gaithersburg City Council and continuing to make Gaithersburg a city that people want to live, work, play, start/grow a business, and raise a family in. Any plans I may have to run for office in 2022 will be announced at a later date.”

— Julie Verratti (D), an attorney, co-owner of Denizens Brewing Company in Silver Spring, and a former Presidential Management Fellow who worked as a senior adviser at the Small Business Administration in the Obama administration, said she has been asked to run and is had been considering it.

But the former lieutenant governor candidate, who ran on a ticket headed by Alec Ross in 2018, has been appointed to a top regional in the SBA, this time by President Biden.

“I am excited and honored to be able to serve in the Biden-Harris Administration to help small businesses across the country. That is my only focus and priority right now,” Verratti said.

In a previous interview, Verratti said she thinks it’s important to have candidates who have a variety of backgrounds in elected office.

“I do think there has been a gap in terms of small business and business experience on the county council level for a while now,” Verratti said.

District seats

District 1. First-term Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D) will be up for re-election. He’s got a fat political war chest that may scare off primary opposition, but some political professionals believe at least a few Democrats will consider running:

— Reggie Oldak, a tax lawyer and former chief of staff to former Councilmember Roger Berliner (D), ran a competitive race in District 1 in 2018 and finished third. She did not respond to a comment request.

— Meredith Wellington, former county Planning Board member, finished fourth in the eight-way Democratic primary in 2018. She did not respond to a request for comment.

District 2 — Third-term Councilmember Craig Rice (D) will vacate his seat in 2022 due to term limits. Potential candidates include:

— Marilyn Balcombe, the president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce. She finished fifth among the 33 candidates in the 2018 at-large Democratic primary. She is strongly considering seeking office again, and would likely run in District 2 rather than at-large.

Marilyn Balcombe is the president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce. (Courtesy Marilyn Balcombe)

“Yes, I am absolutely thinking about it,” Balcombe said of a second Council run. “Right now I’m in District 2, and it’s Craig Rice’s seat. Craig is term limited. Right now I live in a district with an open seat. I enjoyed the campaign in 2018. All things being the same, I would absolutely run, but we have redistricting ahead of us. The issue is, we don’t know what the districts are.”

— William Roberts, a Clarksburg resident and senior staff member at the Center for American Progress who formerly worked for U.S. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), is strongly considering a run for Rice’s seat. Rice is one of two Black members of the council; Roberts is also Black.

While Roberts acknowledges he will likely have competition for the seat, he thinks it’s imperative to have more women serving on the council. He calls it a necessary correction.

District 3 — Two-term Councilman Sidney Katz (D) is eligible to run for re-election. Potential challengers include:

— Laurie-Anne Sayles (see potential at-large candidates)

— Ben Shnider, who is currently deputy chief of staff at the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s attorney’s office. Shnider, who lost by a slim margin to Katz in the 2018 Democratic primary, did not respond to a comment request.

District 4 — Vacancy in 2022. Three-term Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D) will vacate her seat due to term limits.

Navarro represents a district in eastern Montgomery with a large Latino population. She said she would love to see a woman — especially a Latina — replace her.

“That’s been my goal to also serve as an example for coming up, younger women of color who perhaps don’t even think they can aspire to things like this,” Navarro said. “That’s why I think it is critical to elect more women from all backgrounds to these important decision making bodies.”

Gloria Aparicio Blackwell, Director of Community Engagement, University of Maryland, was mentioned by Navarro as a candidate she’d support.

Loretta Jean Garcia ran at-large in the 2018 Democratic primary. She was mentioned by Navarro as a candidate she’d support.

Natali Fani-Gonzalez (see potential at-large candidates)

Maricé Morales, a former state delegate and lawyer who lost her re-election bid in 2018, sounds interested. Morales has been mentioned as a possible candidate by several political insiders, including Navarro.

Maricé Morales has been mentioned as a possible candidate by several political insiders, including Navarro. (Courtesy Maricé Morales)

“I am definitely looking into serving in public office again, and right now I am evaluating all of the possible options,” Morales said in an email.

Grace Rivera-Oven ran at-large in the 2018 Democratic primary and was mentioned by Navarro as a possible District 4 candidate she’d support.

District 5 — Second-term Councilmember Tom Hucker (D) is eligible for re-election.

Kate Stewart, the three-term Takoma Park mayor, was mentioned by several political insiders as a strong, possible candidate.

In an interview, Stewart said she is primarily focused on COVID-19 related issues, including keeping residents safe and healthy and trying to keep businesses open. She said “we’ll see” when asked about running for the council in 2022. When she ran for mayor the first time, she said she hadn’t planned on it, but entered the race because the community had so many needs. She believes there are a lot of needs across the county now — including and especially having more women in office.

“We definitely need more women [in office],” Stewart said in a telephone interview. “The top priority really should be to make sure Black and Brown women are elected officials.”

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