The male-dominated Montgomery County Council is poised for a demographic shake-up if current primary election results hold and the Democratic County Council candidates go on to defeat their Republican opposition in the November general election.

Six female candidates are currently the frontrunners in their council races in the Democratic primary as the counting of mail-in and provisional ballots continues. If all six prevail and then defeat their Republican challengers in November, the number of women holding seats will grow from one to six on the new 11-member council.

County voters approved a ballot measure in November 2020 that increased the number of County Council Members from 9 to 11 members. Democratic candidates have a good chance of winning in the general election, since registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county by about 4 to 1.

If all six women win their respective primary and general elections, that would make a majority of the council. The frontrunners are:

  • District 2: Marilyn Balcombe (Germantown, Clarksburg, Poolesville, and other northwestern parts of the county)
  • District 4: Kate Stewart (North Bethesda, Kensington, Silver Spring, Takoma Park)
  • District 5: Kristin Mink (Four Corners, White Oak, Colesville, Burtonsville, and other parts of east county)
  • District 6: Natali Fani-González (Wheaton, Glenmont, Forest Glen, Aspen Hill)
  • District 7: Dawn Luedtke (Derwood, Olney, Ashton, Brookeville, Damascus, and other northeastern parts of the county)
  • At-large: Laurie-Anne Sayles (entire county)

Nancy Navarro, the council’s lone female member, is leaving because she is facing terms limits after first being elected in 2009. Navarro, along with the frontrunners and other candidates in council races, says the shift to more women would mean that the legislative body will be more representative of Montgomery County’s demographic makeup.

Navarro said she was “ecstatic” that county voters appear to have chosen to elect six women in the Democratic primary. Women are often interested in problem-solving and finding solutions to complex problems versus making headlines, she said.

Advertisement

“There are the same issues and the same challenges and opportunities, I just think there might be a different approach to solving them, and to not be jockeying for credit and the limelight,” Navarro said. “From my experience, we as women lead from a place of wanting to solve problems and bring people together and get things done.”

County Council President Gabe Albornoz said if the primary results hold, and Democrats sweep the council seats in the general election in November, it would be “historic” for the county.

Some of the women who appear poised to join the council say they are aware of the state and national political climate they find themselves in. That includes Mink, who said in an interview that decisions like the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade will mean that Maryland, including Montgomery County, will be the in the “eye of the storm” when it comes to abortion access and residents from other states coming to receive abortion and related health care services. Maryland, compared to other states, has some of the most access to abortion, and strongest protections in state law.

Advertisement

Fatmata Barrie, who currently is in second place in the District 5 race, said she hopes that having more women on the council would provide an opportunity for lawmakers to discuss health disparities, particularly among women of color.

Other candidates said that increasing the number of female voices could force the legislative  and executive branches of county government to engage in more difficult, but productive conversations on issues facing the county. Jacqueline Manger, currently trailing Luedtke in the District 7 race, said she’s conducted research that shows that diversity in companies — both in terms of gender and ethnicity — can often lead to better outcomes. Manger is managing director of the Ed Snider Center at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Albornoz agreed with Manger and others. While the relationship between the legislative and executive branches has not been as “strong in recent history as it needs to be,” the new council — with six women — could lead to new opportunities. 

Advertisement

Laurie-Anne Sayles — in fourth place among the Democratic candidates for four at-large seats — said she believes better policy and legislation are what will result from the change. Women can offer invaluable insights in areas such as economic development, job creation and housing as well as abortion, reproductive health care and others.

“It’s important to have women at the table impacting policy, so I think it’s going to be a refreshing combination of perspectives,” Sayles said.

Luedtke, the frontrunner in District 7, said there’s also another layer to better governance that women can provide — looking at issues through an equity lens. Even though proposed legislation is analyzed from the perspective of racial equity and social justice, along with undergoing a review by the county Office of Legislative Oversight, Luedtke believes that having more women on the council means that reviewing legislation through the equity lens will become more instinctive — and thus become more common culture among the staffs of council members.

Advertisement

“That’s what I think is missing right now, and I think that will continue to improve,” Luedtke said in an interview.

For Navarro, it’s that deliberate and collaborative approach that women often provide that will well serve county residents.

“Women, in general, have that ability to look at the big picture, but also [to] go to a granular point to make changes and find solutions … the business of serving in public office, it’s not just the cutting of the ribbons, and the photos and things like that,” Navarro said. “It’s very tedious, complex, unpredictable work.”

Advertisement

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com