Editor’s note: With early voting starting July 7, Bethesda Beat will be running election wrap-ups of the races for Montgomery County offices and the General Assembly. Today we focus on the Democratic primary for County Council Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4.
County Council Member Andrew Friedson is currently running unopposed for his District 1 seat, but a number of candidates are facing off in three other districts in next month’s Democratic primary.
Friedson’s district covers Bethesda, Potomac, most of Chevy Chase and other nearby areas.
Districts 2, 3, and 4 all have competitive Democratic primaries. Sidney Katz, who is seeking a third and final four-year term on the council, is the lone incumbent running for re-election in any of those races. He’s running in District 3, which mainly covers Rockville and Gaithersburg.
County Council Member Craig Rice’s seat is up for grabs as he is term-limited in District 2, an area that — after the council redistricting process — now includes North Potomac, Poolesville, Germantown and Clarksburg. District 4 is a new district, stretching from North Bethesda through Kensington, Silver Spring and Takoma Park.
No Republicans are running in District 1, but Dan Cuda, George Hernandez and Cheryl Riley are running unopposed in Districts 2, 3, and 4, respectively. Paula Bienefeld, a local activist and member of the Parents’ Coalition, is attempting to run for County Council District 4 as an independent.
Here are the Democratic candidates.
Friedson — who lives in Bethesda, and was first elected to the council in 2018 after winning a primary with eight Democratic candidates — is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. No Republican has filed in the race.
He has been a champion of economic development and businesses during his time on the council, which includes sponsoring legislation to speed up the regulatory review process for biohealth facilities that want to locate in certain economic zones in the county, which was approved.
Friedson has also questioned the county’s use of federal pandemic relief money, particularly when it comes to hazard pay for county employees. He has said the county executive administration has deviated from best fiscal practices when distributing the money.
He grew up in District 1 and has previously said the county has strong “economic bones” that county officials and other leaders can use as a foundation to address the challenges facing the county.
Balcombe, of Germantown, currently serves as the president/CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce. In 2018, she ran for an at-large council seat, finishing fifth in a field of more than 30 candidates in the Democratic primary.
In interviews and forums, she’s talked about the need to improve economic development in the county, whether by loosening some regulations involved in the permitting process or creating more incentives — via tax breaks or otherwise — to attract both large and small businesses.
Balcombe says she possesses the skills to help businesses as they navigate the post-pandemic environment and that her experience upcounty — with more than a dozen years at the Chamber of Commerce and three years as executive director for the BlackRock Center for the Arts — qualifies her to serve District 2.
Joining some other elected officials upcounty, she supports the expansion of I-270 via toll roads in both the north and southbound lanes. Balcombe said the project is just one of many solutions — including bus rapid transit, increased service on MARC rail and others — that need to be implemented in order to reduce congestion between communities upcounty and downcounty.
Lorna Phillips Forde
Like Balcombe, Forde — who lives in Germantown — ran four years ago in the crowded Democratic primary field for an at-large seat. But she finished with less than 1.5% of the vote, far behind the top four candidates who moved on to the general election in November.
On her campaign website, Forde speaks about the need to preserve the county’s agricultural reserve, and calls for funding to create a local high school-to-college pipeline for agricultural science.
She also has said in forums that the county needs to do a better job of utilizing vacant parking lots and empty office buildings, especially when it comes to transit-oriented development. Forde supports bus rapid transit and providing dedicated lanes when practical.
Forde has also focused on gun violence prevention programs and sensible gun control legislation and touted her work as an advocate, testifying on legislation in the Maryland General Assembly this year, that led to a ban on the sale of so-called ghost guns.
Roberts, of Clarksburg, has served as a legislative staffer to U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Takoma Park) and currently serves as chair/treasurer of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance.
He supports policies that promote a diverse array of development options, especially for growth near transit stations. Roberts also thinks the county should provide more financial assistance to future homeowners who need help with down payments and expand rent-to-own programs.
He’s also talked about the need for the county to adequately fund school facility projects upcounty in order to alleviate crowding.
He also said it’s important for local officials to pursue as much money as possible from the federal infrastructure bill passed by Congress in order to make long-shot transit goals like two-way, all-day MARC service through the county a reality.
Bennett, who lives in Rockville, ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary in District 2 in 2018, works as an instructor in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation/automated external defibrillator (CPR-AED) training and certification courses.
She’s participated in some forums during this campaign cycle and believes that one way to address affordable housing is to cap the amount that landlords can increase rents when renewing leases.
Bennett also said the county should explore ways to make transit more accessible to lower-income people, including making Ride On permanently free. If the transit system is more reliable — including providing more MARC service in both directions — then there will be less reliance on cars, she said.
She points to her work in the community as a reason she should be elected, including as founder of the Helping Everyone Reform nonprofit, which helps young women and families find resources and opportunities to start businesses.
Katz, the incumbent from Gaithersburg, seeks a third and final term in District 3. A former owner of a general department store in Gaithersburg who also was the city’s mayor for 16 years and served on the City Council for 20 years, he believes he has the experience to help guide the council through difficult decisions.
County Executive Marc Elrich and other county officials touted Katz’s role in helping garner support from colleagues to pass the $15 minimum wage bill in late 2017.
Katz was also council president when the coronavirus pandemic started in 2020, and helped navigate the switch to virtual meetings and other logistical challenges.
He’s talked on the campaign trail about the need to address rising crime in the county and said more resources and funds need to be directed toward mental health programs for at-risk community members.
Wu is an attorney for Northrop Grumman — a multinational aerospace and defense technology company. He lives in Gaithersburg, and has served on the Gaithersburg City Council since 2015.
He and Katz have been, at least publicly, friendly on the campaign trail. Wu previously told Bethesda Beat he sat down with Katz before deciding to run.
Wu said there are great opportunities for the county, especially in District 3, to connect students and young adults to high tech jobs because of the proximity to employers including the Universities of Shady Grove, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy.
Wu has said he is concerned about the morale of the county’s police force and recruitment issues. The council’s actions and rhetoric on police reform have contributed to some of that, he said.
Carr, of Kensington, became the fifth Democrat in the race when he decided not to seek re-election to his current office as the state delegate representing District 18, — a seat he’s held since 2007 — and instead decided to run for the District 4 council seat.
He said in a previous interview with Bethesda Beat that the county needs a better coordinated response to mass flooding events, which can displace residents and endanger their safety.
Carr has also been a champion of advocating for more transparency in the operations of local government, including entities like the Housing Opportunities Commission, an organization that focuses on affordable housing. He believes the county needs stronger ethics laws and that local government needs to do better at engaging residents when it comes to decisions such as those involving future development.
He said his experience in the General Assembly — and prior to that, as a member of the Kensington Town Council — means he would be a good fit for a County Council that will have at least five new members.
Ginsburg, of North Bethesda, serves as executive director of the Friends of White Flint, and this is her first attempt at running for public office.
In interviews, she has touted her success in making North Bethesda a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly area as new development has popped up and the population has grown.
But she’s also been critical of the county’s efforts at economic development in recent years, noting that many younger residents can’t find jobs close to where they live in the county. There needs to be a greater review of the county’s regulatory and licensing processes to attract small and medium-sized businesses, along with larger companies, she said.
Ultimately, the county takes a lot of time studying possible solutions to its problems — like bus rapid transit for transportation, for example — without taking any immediate action to fix issues, she said. Immediate solutions could include adding more separated bike lanes, increasing express bus service and other quick actions that could relieve congestion, Ginsburg said.
Murtha, of North Bethesda, and a law student at George Washington University, says he understands his long odds for election as a younger candidate in a crowded field.
Still, he’s focused on issues like increasing the level of affordable housing and economic development. He’s also concerned that the county has not moved fast enough on transportation issues and proposed solutions — and notes that by the time that related studies are completed, they may no longer reflect the reality of what is needed in Montgomery County.
The community engagement process for Thrive Montgomery 2050 — the county’s proposed update to its general master plan — has not been robust enough, Murtha said. He’s concerned about how the plan might displace communities of low-income residents.
He’s also interested in investing more money into preventative health care, especially for lower-income communities. Murtha, who works as a volunteer EMT, said he sees the cost of the government not providing such services whenever he serves in that role.
Stewart, who lives in Takoma Park and has been the city’s mayor since 2015, has particularly focused on affordable housing during her campaign.
She has said it’s important not only to encourage the construction of more housing, but also to preserve older buildings so that they stay affordable, along with implementing rent stabilization and other similar policies. Takoma Park is the only municipality in the county with a rent stabilization law.
Stewart said the county did not do a good job of informing renters countywide at the start of the coronavirus pandemic about whether it was safe to be in public spaces — like the elevator or the laundry room, for example.
She also has touted her work with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and with other local mayors and the state District 20 delegation in ensuring tenants’ rights, implement policies supporting clean energy, and helping school principals navigate the pandemic.
Zittrauer, a Silver Spring resident and bartender at Denizens Brewing Co., has been frank about his campaign and what it would mean if he were elected. He’s said multiple times on the campaign trail that he’s lived on tight budgets, and that his career in the service industry would provide a perspective different from that of current council members.
In interviews, Zittrauer has said that county officials need to do more to help the homeless population. He believes part of the solution includes creating housing policies that help renters, such as those pertaining to moderately priced dwelling units and social housing. Helping the homeless also requires that elected officials and local health experts consider whether to establish a safe injection site in the county for people addicted to dangerous substances, he said.
Like Murtha, Zittrauer said better public outreach was needed for Thrive Montgomery 2050. Instead of using conventional methods of outreach, more could have been done to meet community members where they are, he said.
He also believes that the county needs better transit options that can connect the upcounty and the downcounty.
When is the election?
The primary election is July 19. Early voting begins July 7. Mail-in ballots will be accepted as long as they are postmarked by 8 p.m. July 19 or are dropped into a ballot drop box by that time.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org