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 County Council District 6.
A former member of the Montgomery County Planning Board and a risk management consultant are the two choices facing voters for the County Council District 6 seat in the Nov. 8 general election.
Natali Fani-Gonzalez, 41, of Wheaton won the Democratic primary in July against seven other candidates, receiving over 56% of the vote. Viet Doan, 36, who lives near Rockville, was unopposed in the Republican primary.
District 6 is a new council district created after the redistricting process last year. County voters approved a ballot question in 2020, which increased the size of the council from nine to 11 members — the number of districts increased from five to seven, and at-large seats (serving the entire county) remained at four.
Fani-Gonzalez and Doan are running in a district that includes Forest Glen, Wheaton, Glenmont and Aspen Hill.
Fani-Gonzalez served on the county’s Planning Board from 2014 until 2021, when she resigned to run for the council seat. She also founded a communications and public policy firm in Wheaton. Doan has worked as an attorney in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He now works as a risk management consultant and has been a contract employee for Leidos and Deloitte.
Fani-Gonzalez, a former vice chair of the Planning Board, said in an interview that improving pedestrian and cyclist safety, including in urban areas such as Wheaton, has been an important issue on the campaign trail and is one of the reasons she is running. Doan sees himself as a moderate conservative option for District 6 and says he has heard often about the need to support small businesses throughout the region.
On housing issues, Fani-Gonzalez pointed to her work on the Planning Board, including her involvement in the development of more than 20 county master plans. Those plans helped determine where more density was needed in certain areas of the county, including near public transportation, she said.
She said redevelopment and an increase in housing density need to be prioritized near Metro stations. And certain corridors — such as Georgia Avenue, which she called the “spine” of her district connecting Forest Glen, Wheaton, Glenmont and Aspen Hill — need to be redeveloped to add more bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and to attract new jobs and residents, she said.
Doan said more investment in homeownership assistance programs and other types of subsidized housing is needed to help the lower to middle classes to be able to afford to live in the county, which he believes is becoming increasingly expensive.
Building more housing is a laudable goal, but it doesn’t do much good if housing isn’t affordable, he said, mentioning an example of changing zoning to allow a triplex to be built on a lot for a single-family home, with each new home costing $700,000. Many working families in the county would not be able to afford those new homes, he said.
“So when we do this, how are we meaningfully going to make sure that people are able to actually afford to get into these houses?” Doan said. “Are we just going to be setting ourselves up to where we kind of have corporate landlords and these are just going to be a bunch of rental units or Airbnb [places]? … You can’t just like, build it. If they can’t afford it, then they can’t move to it anyway … you solve a problem, but you didn’t solve the problem.”
Fani-Gonzalez and Doan both agree that more needs to be done to spur economic development in the county, particularly in District 6.
The Democratic candidate said small- to medium-sized businesses deal with a “lot of red tape” as they navigate the permitting and licensing process in the county. And typically, smaller businesses didn’t have the resources to apply for federal, state and local aid during the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
“It might sound simple for people who are more educated or who are in the know, but for a lot of businesses that are struggling, they don’t have time to take a day off to understand how to fill out a form,” Fani-Gonzalez said. “I personally have talked to businesses that are facing that, and to me, that’s shocking … . That’s just one example of how critical the situation is.”
Doan agreed that streamlining the regulatory process is important. But he added that more resources are needed, especially for minority-owned businesses — whether the resources are translation services or access to business loans.
The lack of communication between local chambers of commerce, the County Council and city governments is making it difficult for smaller businesses to start operations, which ultimately could cause them to move or decide to open their businesses outside of the county, Doan said.
The two candidates also agree that better infrastructure is needed throughout the district, particularly to combat the impacts of climate change. For Fani-Gonzalez, that means looking at how redevelopment can accommodate growth and different types of transportation, while also preparing for an increase in major flooding events.
“Every time you redevelop a particular site, you’re upgrading your water and sewer [systems], [and] you are upgrading the streets,” she said. “So when it rains, water can flow in a good way, or you are making your streets more walkable and bikeable.”
Doan is supportive of making policy changes to protect the environment. But it’s important to consider the full impact of broad proposals, such as a proposed bill calling for electrifying energy sources for all new construction and renovations in the county. Small businesses, including those owned by minorities, have spoken out about how the legislation could negatively impact their ability to do business, he said. There also are other larger issues, he said.
“We have to look into the big picture,” Doan said. “What are we really doing when the electricity that is supplied also comes from coal and gas? How are we actually meaningfully helping the planet at large?”
Fani-Gonzalez said she is confident of her chances of winning the November election, noting she has personally knocked on more than 8,000 doors in the district and is committed to its communities.
“I’m not the type of person that just smiles for the camera, I’m the type of person who is behind the camera working,” she said.
Doan understands his odds, in a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 4 to 1 — and in a district that has a sizable portion of Latinos who know Fani-Gonzalez.
But he views the campaign as an opportunity to highlight the needs of district residents who feel underrepresented.
“My slogan has been ‘Your neighbor with a mic,’ and every time I talk with a business owner or every time I talk with another member within the community … I want to highlight their concerns, their challenges and their problems,” Doan said.