A retired Montgomery College employee and an information technology contractor are the first two Republicans to file to run for at-large seats on the County Council this year.
Len Lieber, 54, of Gaithersburg and Dwight Patel, 50, of Silver Spring are seeking the Republican nomination for four at-large seats, which represent the entire county.
Six Democrats have filed to run — incumbents Gabe Albornoz, Evan Glass and Will Jawando and challengers Brandy Brooks, Scott Evan Goldberg and Laurie-Anne Sayles.
Lieber said in an interview that he has not been happy with the County Council and the county executive the past two years, which prompted him to run for local office.
He used to work at Montgomery College for 39 years in the IT department and other capacities, but had to resign after deciding to not get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Montgomery College requires employees and students to be vaccinated.
Lieber said he applied for a religious exemption, but was denied and had to choose between resigning or being fired.
He was critical of the county’s mask mandates and a proposed vaccine passport for businesses. Lieber said he knows residents who do not feel safe in the county, sometimes because of reckless behavior — such as a woman who accused police of not doing enough to prevent people from setting off fireworks that land on her house.
Even though they understand that the county government and Montgomery County Public Schools are separate entities, Lieber and Patel both said they’re disappointed in the state of schools countywide and that that dissatisfaction helped inspire them to run for County Council.
Lieber said he is still learning about the separation of duties between council members and school officials, but believes the council can still act on legislative issues that can affect schools.
He does not support reinstating school resource officers in high schools, but added that some police officers stationed in schools have been better at settling conflict and not harassing students, no matter the background or ethnicity of students.
In a similar vein, Lieber believes there needs to be better training for police officers countywide. He said that stems from his libertarian views on policing, as he’s seen many examples of police officers nationwide abuse their power and manhandle people when conflict resolution would have been better.
Lieber knows that Republicans are outnumbered in the county. According to the latest totals from the state Board of Elections, there are 411,267 enrolled Democrats, 99,438 enrolled Republicans and 157,513 unaffiliated, or independent, voters in Montgomery County.
“I know the makeup of this county and most people see an R and just pass them by … but I just have too many issues with what the Democratic Party has been doing the past two years, and so I’m just willing to take that chance,” Lieber said.
Patel has worked in information technology and run twice for elected office before. He ran unsuccessfully for the District 15 state Senate seat in 2010 and the District 20 state Senate seat in 2018.
Patel believes the standards for Montgomery County Public Schools have greatly declined in the last 15 years, while property taxes have increased.
He said he knows County Council members do not control the school district operations, but he said they control “purse strings” through money the county gives the district each year. In that way, if the council objects to racial lessons being taught in schools, it could withhold funding until the curriculum changes, he said.
Also, the school system should be considering merit-based pay, to reward good teachers, and county officials can hold back funding until such a system is implemented, Patel said.
Under state law, the county is required to provide a minimum level of per-pupil funding each year (known as “maintenance of effort”), and can’t provide less money than it did the previous year.
Patel favors reinstating school resource officers in every high school.
He said county officials are not doing enough to consider the impact of current developments on road and school capacity. With portable classrooms in the parking lots at Montgomery Blair High School, students park in the strip mall lots across University Boulevard, which can disrupt businesses in that area, he said.
According to school data, during the 2020-2021 school year, 3,220 students were enrolled at Montgomery Blair High School. The capacity is 2,889 students. Data from that year shows there are 10 portable classrooms.
Patel wants to improve transportation throughout the county, mainly through road projects.
He said there could be more underpasses and overpasses at intersections to improve traffic flow, including at Colesville Road and University Boulevard. Patel added that there are opportunities to widen current roads, including adding lanes on Josiah Henson Parkway east to Veirs Mill Road.
He also said the Intercounty Connector should be extended west to Virginia and that more bridges should be built across the Potomac to connect Montgomery County to Virginia. Patel added that White’s Ferry, for instance, could become a bridge instead of a car ferry. A dispute between the ferry operators and a landowner has kept ferry service on hold.
Patel said he’s talked to Democrats and independent voters who want the same things — great schools, a safer community, better transportation and a friendlier business environment, among other issues. He said he’s disappointed in the divide in the county not only by party affiliation, but also by geography, between the eastern and western parts of the county.
“I’m a Republican, yes, but I am running to fix Montgomery County,” Patel said.
The filing deadline for this year’s elections is March 22. The primary election is scheduled for June 28, and the general election is set for Nov. 8.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org