Editor’s note: Bethesda Beat is publishing a series of stories highlighting local races for county, state and federal elected offices in the Nov. 8 general election. Today’s story focuses on the County Council at-large race.
This story was updated at 4:55 p.m. on Nov. 7 to include comments from Gabe Albornoz.
Eight candidates from across the county are competing Tuesday for four at-large seats on the Montgomery County Council. Three Republicans, one Green Party candidate, and four Democrats – three of whom are incumbents – are hoping to represent the entire county.
The Democratic candidates include Gabe Albornoz, the current council president who is 46 and lives in Kensington; Evan Glass, the current vice president who is 45 and lives in Silver Spring; and Council Member Will Jawando, who is 40 and lives in Ashton. The three incumbents are seeking a second term. The fourth Democrat is Laurie-Anne Sayles, a 41-year-old former senior project manager for the Food and Drug Administration who lives in Gaithersburg.
Green Party candidate and entrepreneur Dan Robinson is 71 and lives in Silver Spring.
The Republican candidates are commercial real estate broker Chris Fiotes, 88, who lives in Gaithersburg; retired Montgomery College employee Len Lieber, 54, also from Gaithersburg; and Dwight Patel, 50, an IT project manager who lives in Silver Spring.
Fiotes declined to participate in an interview due to scheduling conflicts.
Here’s where the candidates stand on some of the major issues voters are talking about this election:
The Democratic candidates largely agreed the county needs to make a stronger investment in affordable housing. Jawando emphasized the importance of ensuring a variety of housing types.
“Just building high-rent high-rises is not going to solve our affordable housing crisis. We’re going to need to build more types of housing at different price points,” Jawando said.
He said the county needs to require more from developers and also assess how public land is being used.
Glass also expressed a desire to create more housing.
“If we want more housing that is affordable, we have to have more housing,period. That is how we have to confront this housing crisis and it will be at the top of my mind in the next term,” Glass said.
Albornoz said he wants to forge more public and private partnerships and get creative about converting unviable commercial office space into condominiums or apartments.
“We have to have an all-of-the-above approach and we have to start with the low-hanging fruit. We need to take better advantage of county-owned buildings and spaces and build on those to be able to access more affordable housing in the short term,” Albornoz said.
Sayles says she wants to focus on increasing access to homeownership as well as creating more affordable housing.
“We have to be really intentional about not looking at housing in silos but looking at it as a holistic part of how Montgomery County will ultimately thrive. Increasing access to homeownership includes creating pots of money and resources to ensure that people can access down
Robinson said he would like to work with Maryland
“If people wanted to rent a room, they could without feeling like they’re breaking the law. Or they could rent their home to a second family and share the kitchen,” he said.
Lieber said government should have less involvement in affordable housing.
“It’s not the role of government to make affordable housing. If the government would do less, there would be more wealth that would be created, and people would have the means to afford housing,” Lieber said.
Patel expressed similar thoughts. He said he’s supportive of some subsidized loans and affordable housing programs, but it’s not realistic that everyone will be able to afford to live in the county.
“It’s a privilege to live in Montgomery County. It’s going to cost a little more to live here. For your first car, you might buy a Chevrolet, then you work your way up to a Cadillac. General Motors can’t subsidize a Cadillac for you. It’s a privilege to live here. And if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it. I’d love to buy a $100,000 Tesla but I can’t afford it,” Patel said.
Across party lines, candidates agreed the pandemic had a huge financial impact on small businesses.
“We need to bring more jobs to Montgomery County
, so that we have a strong tax base to provide the high level of services residents expect and demand. In order to bring more jobs we need more housing for workers to live in. And we need a climate that is accommodating to businesses,” Glass said. “During the pandemic, we learned that we could change the systems and regulations to meet an immediate need and we need to have that same philosophy when it comes to economic development. We have to be fast. And we have to be mindful of the timelines that businesses operate on. Slow and steady does not win the economic development race.”
Jawando said he wants to conduct regular surveys to see how small businesses are doing and how the county can support them, and to invest in more grant programs for business innovation, especially in technology.
Sayles said it’s key to diversify the economy as well as the workforce. She said if the county wants to attract technology entrepreneurs and investments, the county needs to have the skilled workforce those industries require. Those conversations can’t happen in silos and so the county needs to work with Montgomery County Public Schools and local colleges and universities to make sure students have access to the information and education they need for jobs in various fields, including the technology field.
Albornoz said the county needs to eliminate as much bureaucracy and “red tape” as possible to help small businesses thrive, and that the county needs to do better at investing in its workforce.
“We need to better leverage the economic assets that we have. And that starts with our incredibly well-educated and diverse workforce, which is an attraction to businesses of all sizes, and we need to make sure that we reinforce and help provide their training and education,” he said.
Lieber argued the businesses wouldn’t have suffered the losses they did if the county hadn’t locked down during the pandemic. The county needs to stop making decisions that could affect businesses and work on creating an environment that allows small businesses to thrive, he said. Also, he said, the county should focus on decreasing the crime rate and making the county a more attractive place to invest in.
Patel wants to incentivize Fortune 500 companies to come to the county by offering tax credits.
“Hypothetically, if we could get a company like Amazon to relocate to White Flint, that’s one of the best things we could do for bringing in business,” Patel said. “We’d tell them we love that you’re here, you’re going to be employing so many more people, we’re going to give you tax incentives. So for the first 10 years, you’re only paying half the taxes you would [typically] have to. That would mean they could put that money back into the company, hire more people and invest in infrastructure.”
Robinson said the county needs to focus on making sure residents not only can access everything they need within a 15-minute drive, as discussed in the Thrive Montgomery 2050 – the county’s update of its general master plan — but also make sure residents can access all their needs within a 15-minute walk. He said it’s important to invest in businesses in areas that residents can easily access by walking.
As the Green Party candidate, addressing climate change is a top priority for Robinson. He’d like to see the county become a leader in green technology, which he said ties into economic development.
“We’re one of the richest counties in the world. We could do the same thing that we did with biotech with green solutions. We could try to attract everything and anything in the world of green. That could transform how we do business and how the county has a spot in the world and make us become a leader in green technology,” Robinson said.
The Democratic candidates agreed climate change needs to be addressed on the local level.
Albornoz said climate change is “the greatest existential threat facing our entire globe.”
“We have to ensure that we focus on our environmental health and create and establish plans for towns and cities that are highly walkable, that have numerous transit options, so that we can get more people out of their cars as much as possible. But we also need to establish more jobs in Montgomery County so people don’t have to travel as far to get to work,” Albornoz said.
Jawando is co-sponsoring a bill under consideration by the council that would require all commercial buildings to be powered solely by electricity by 2024 in order to move away from fossil fuel dependency. He said he also wants to address the use of single-use plastics.
“If you’ve ever visited our incinerator, when a piece of plastic gets in there, it heats it up to a point where it actually emits more CO2 and it’s worse for our environment. So we have to try to get those out of the waste stream and even out of our recycling because it costs a lot of energy to recycle those single-use plastics, and many of them are not recyclable. So I’m working on a bill in that regard. As far as our trash and recycling, we need to upgrade our facilities to make sure we can recycle more and better,” Jawando said.
Sayles said it’s time for the county to create regulations to reach the goals set forth in the county’s climate action plan.
“If we’re trying to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, what do we have to start doing now? As a government, but across our municipalities, how can we work with our businesses, as well, to make sure that we’re all transitioning together?” Sayles said. “We’re still in a downturn in the economy, inflation is high. And electrification is going to be expensive, transitioning costs are going to be expensive. So I’m glad that we have programs like the county’s Green Bank
, so we can support low
Glass said he wants to focus on creating a more robust transportation system.
“Forty-two percent of climate emissions in Montgomery County come from transportation. So in order to bend that curve, we need to create more incentives for people to take public transportation and that begins with a robust network of buses, Metro light-rail and the MARC [commuter rail],” he said. “We also have to recognize that half of our carbon emissions come from buildings. There’s a lot of work to do across many different sectors and we have to work with our state and regional partners to achieve those goals.”
Lieber said he doesn’t see the climate as something the county should address.
“I think climate alarmism is greatly overstated. I think it’s dangerous for a government at any level to be imposing any kind of regulations, taxes, restrictions on people, because of [carbon dioxide]. I’m firmly opposed to something that takes away people’s ability to live their lives to the fullest of how they see fit,” Lieber said.
Patel said he supports the county’s existing recycling and conservation programs but doesn’t think the county should do anything that will impact how businesses do their work and people live their lives.
“I think we are doing the most that we can do without harming local businesses and others. A local mileage tax, for example, hurts the people who can least afford it hardest. These taxes are regressive,” Patel said.
As a Republican in a majority Democrat county, Patel said he is confident in his chances because he took an out-of-the box approach to campaigning and made an effort to talk to and connect with non-Republicans.
“I’ve gone to diners, I’ve talked to neighborhood associations, I have been very well received from people,” Patel said.
Lieber said he doesn’t necessarily have “high hopes” for winning a council seat because of the Democratic majority in the county, but wanted to provide “a saner, wiser alternative” to voters who share his beliefs.
Robinson said as a Green Party Candidate, he knows his chances of winning are slim. But he wanted to provide an alternative to voters and get them thinking about breaking the two-party mold.
“I’m not a Democrat, so I don’t have a lot of options – either run or don’t run. But I like politics, and I’m so enlivened about this dysfunction at the county level regarding primaries. I’m really excited to be running to learn about how this electoral system works, how the Electoral Code in Maryland is structured is fascinating,” Robinson said.
The Democratic candidates said they’re excited to be part of a more diverse council if all of the Democrats are elected.
“I’m feeling proud and humbled that I’ve gotten the level of support that I’ve received thus far. I’m looking forward to this next part of the race being over and being able to focus on serving the next four years with what will be, I think, a transformational incoming council,” Albornoz said.
Jawando said he’s looking forward to potentially working with what would be the most diverse council yet, and one that may include as many as six women. Currently, only one woman, Nancy Navarro, serves on the council; she is vacating her seat due to term limits.
Glass, who is in line to be council president if elected, voiced similar sentiments. “I am very excited about the expanded council and the diversity that will come from it. This will be the most diverse council we’ve ever had [if all Democrats are elected]. And it will truly be reflective of our diverse community,” Glass said.
Sayles said she is honored at the prospect of being the first Black woman to serve on the council.
“Being the potential first African American woman to represent this county, by and large, is a huge responsibility that I don’t take lightly. And I’m excited, but I also know that the real work is going to begin after these election results are certified,” she said.