2022 | Politics

Transit, policing, upcounty representation top concerns in County Council District 7 race

Seven Democrats are vying for one of two new upcounty district seats

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Seven Democrats running for County Council District 7 participated in a forum hosted by Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat last Wednesday. (Top row from left: Paul Geller, Jacqueline Manger, Sharif Hidayat. Middle row from left: Dawn Luedtke, Ben Wikner, Andrew Einsmann. Bottom row from left: Founding Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat Editor and Publisher Steve Hull, and Paul Schwartz.)

Screenshot via Zoom

Seven Democrats running for a new County Council seat — County Council District 7 — agree on the need to improve public transportation and upcounty representation, but differ somewhat on the future of policing and public safety.

District 7 is one of two new upcounty council seats, created when the current council finalized a new seven-district map in December. District 7 covers the northeastern part of the county and includes the following communities: Derwood, Olney, Ashton, Brookeville, Laytonsville, Montgomery Village and Damascus.

The candidates discussed the issues during a virtual forum Wednesday night held by Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat.

The seven candidates are:

  • Andrew Einsmann, a real estate agent and former U.S. Peace Corps member
  • Paul Geller, a writer and past president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs
  • Sharif Hidayat, a former Montgomery County police officer
  • Dawn Luedtke, an assistant attorney general for Maryland
  • Jacqueline Manger, a senior official at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business
  • Paul Schwartz, an advocate and legislative analyst for National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) in Maryland, and former senior federal government official
  • Ben Wikner, a local pastor and community organizer

During the forum, all seven candidates agreed that the upcounty, and specifically District 7, has been ignored by the council while its members focused on downcounty residents and issues.

“I don’t think there’s a single person on this panel that doesn’t think the current County Council members only focus on downcounty issues. We’re the red-headed stepchildren up here,” Hidayat said. 

Manger — who jokingly noted that she has red hair — and others pointed out that even though District 7 residents have said they’ve felt ignored, there is a great opportunity for whoever wins the election to serve them. 

Candidates said Wednesday that it’s time to provide the area with proper representation.

Even so, Einsmann said the area’s lack of representation has led to tangible effects — including the fact that capital projects for the area are often low on the county’s list of priorities. The highest-ranking project for the area is currently in 61st place on the list, he said. “That just tells you how neglected the whole district was,” Einsmann said.

He and other candidates emphasized that it’s important that the person elected to the seat is able to work with other council members to meet the needs of the upcounty area.

Candidates also agreed that transportation networks needed to be improved upcounty. Luedtke, as did others, noted that MARC service should be expanded on the Brunswick line from Frederick County and West Virginia through Montgomery County and into Washington, D.C. 

Geller, however, pointed to what he considered another transportation issue in District 7: the difficulty in driving south on Georgia Avenue. Traffic lights need to be better timed and integrated so that motorists don’t hit a string of red lights, he said.

“There’s nothing more challenging on people’s nerves than driving down on [Maryland] 97, Georgia Avenue, and hitting red light after red light after red light,” Geller said. “We have the ability to actually correct this and allow all the lights to not only be in sync with each other, but also to gauge the flow and the speed of traffic.”

Wikner agreed with others that MARC service and bus rapid transit networks should be expanded, but he added that personal rapid transit systems should be considered as well. 

Personal rapid transit systems come in many forms, but often use podcars — small personal-use electric vehicles or guided/railed taxis on separated tracks. 

Most of the candidates also shared similar ideas on how to combat violent crime, which has seen some spikes in the county. Luedtke said there are multiple solutions, including expanding mental health services and training police officers alongside psychologists and social workers so they have some of the same knowledge and skills.

“We also need to focus on the why … why it is happening?” Luedtke said. “So our public safety programming and enhanced community policing needs to focus on the why … and putting out the fire at the same time.”

Schwartz noted there needs to be more financial assistance for first responders, including police officers, so they can afford to live in the communities that they serve instead of living outside of the county. He added that he supports the legislation recently passed by the council that will create a police accountability board and administrative charging committee, which will act as civilian oversight boards.

But Hidayat held a different opinion than his opponents. He said elected officials have disrespected the county’s police force and made it harder for officers to do their jobs, either through their legislative actions or overall rhetoric. 

Elected officials have said the rise in crime in the county reflects a nationwide trend, but that’s not a good enough response for residents who want to feel safe, Hidayat added. He said he would be the best candidate for public safety because of his background as a former county police officer. He retired recently from the department, after serving more than 20 years, to run for the council seat.

“You have one of the best police departments in the country right here,” he said. “I’ve worked with all of [the commanders and officers] … . The reason that we’re having a problem with public safety is because public safety is being attacked by this county executive and the County Council.”

The primary election is July 19. The general election is Nov. 8.

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