Bethesda Magazine: Local Teachers Union Unveils Endorsements for County Council, Board of Education
BY LOUIS PECK
The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) on Thursday unveiled its endorsements in several competitive County Council and Board of Education races this June—but opted to hold off making a choice on who it would like to see as the next county executive.
“MCEA may choose to make further endorsements, including for the office of county executive, depending upon the outcome of the county budget process,” said a release from the organization, which represents the teaching staff of the county’s public school system. The council’s annual budget process is expected to culminate in mid-May, a little over a month in advance of this year’s June 26 primary vote.
With three incumbents—District 1 council member Roger Berliner and at-large council members Marc Elrich and George Leventhal—part of a six-way Democratic primary field for county executive, the MCEA’s delay is clearly aimed at maximizing its leverage in the upcoming budget deliberations. Nearly half of the county’s approximately $5.4 billion budget is directed to the school system.
In the meantime, the MCEA endorsed three non-incumbents from among 33 Democrats vying for four at-large council nominations in this year’s primary: activist Brandy Brooks of Wheaton, attorney Will Jawando of Silver Spring, and teacher Chris Wilhelm of Chevy Chase.
In an eight-way Democratic primary in District 1, the MCEA’s representative assembly, which met Wednesday, endorsed four-term state Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase for the seat now held by Berliner.
In another highly competitive contest for a district council seat in the June primary, the MCEA endorsed Rockville-based civic activist and political operative Ben Shnider, who is seeking to oust incumbent District 3 council member Sidney Katz of Gaithersburg.
For the four seats available this year in the non-partisan election for the county Board of Education, the MCEA endorsed two incumbents: Judy Docca of Montgomery Village for the District 1 seat, and Patricia O’Neill of Bethesda in District 3. Brenda Wolff of Silver Spring, a retired employee of the U.S. Department of Education, was endorsed in District 5; that slot was held for almost a decade by Michael Durso, who is retiring.
In the eight-way contest for the at-large school board seat now held by Jill Ortman-Fouse—who is leaving to make a bid for the council—the MCEA endorsed Karla Silvestre of Silver Spring, who works in community engagement at Montgomery College.
Because more than two candidates are running for the at-large and District 3 school board seats, those races will be on the ballot at the same time as the June 26 primary—with the two top finishers then facing each other in a runoff in the November general election. Because only two candidates are running for the board seats in District 1 and District 5, there will only be a November vote in those contests.
In recent decades, the support of the MCEA has been regarded as one of the two most influential endorsements in county elections—a political status it has shared with the endorsement of The Washington Post editorial page. The MCEA, which says it represents more than 14,000 teachers and other professional educators in the county school system, lists its endorsements on the so-called “Apple Ballot”—which is widely distributed at polling places.
The union’s endorsements Thursday encompass a number of candidates with close ties to the county public school system, including Wilhelm—an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher at Northwood High School in Silver Spring. He becomes the second MCEA member to get the group’s endorsement this year: The MCEA earlier backed Samir Paul, a computer mathematics teacher at Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High, for an open seat for the state House of Delegates in Bethesda-based District 16.
Docca, seeking her fourth term on the board, spent more than three decades working in the county’s school system—becoming a principal after earlier service as an assistant principal and teacher. She has said that, if re-elected, the coming term will be her last on the board.
O’Neill, running for a sixth term, would become the longest serving school board member in county history if re-elected. She has served on the board for 20 years: only the late Blair Ewing, who spent 22 years on the board before being elected to the council, had a longer tenure.
Before being elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, Gutierrez—the MCEA’s choice for the Bethesda/Chevy Chase-based District 1 council seat—served two terms as the first Hispanic-American member of the board from 1990-1998.
In District 3, which takes in Rockville and Gaithersburg, the MCEA is the latest of several labor groups to get behind Shnider’s insurgent campaign. He earlier garnered the backing of the SEIU Local 500, which represents the 12,000-member support staff of the county’s school system.
Katz—a former mayor of Gaithersburg who was a long-time small business owner—also failed to receive the backing of the MCEA in winning his first term on the council in 2014.
The MCEA endorsement of Shnider comes a couple of days after another local union, IAFF Local 1664—which represents the county’s paid fire fighters—announced it was backing Katz.
In the council at-large race, the MCEA’s backing is the latest in a series of major organizational endorsements for Jawando—who is running in his third election in four years after losing bids for state House of Delegates in 2014 and U.S. Congress in 2016. A former official in the administration of President Barack Obama, Jawando earlier received the endorsements of SEIU Local 500 as well as the Maryland Sierra Club.
In endorsing Brooks for the at-large seat, the MCEA got behind a staff member of Progressive Maryland, which has close ties to a number of local unions. If elected, Brooks and Jawando, who are African-American, could boost minority representation on the nine-person council—whose current makeup includes only two minority group members in a county that is now majority-minority.
In addition to the deferred decision in the county executive race, the MCEA could later opt to make a fourth endorsement for council at-large—a contest in which Hans Riemer of Takoma Park is the only incumbent seeking re-election in the wake of a 2016 referendum imposing a three-term limit on the county executive and council members.
The MCEA also did not announce endorsements in District 2, which covers much of the upcounty area; District 4, in the county’s northeastern section; and Silver Spring/Takoma Park-based District 5. District 4 council member Nancy Navarro and District 5 council member Tom Hucker, both of Silver Spring, were unopposed for renomination until just days before last week’s primary filing deadline.
As in the case of Riemer, the outcome of the forthcoming budget process could help determine whether Hucker, Navarro and District 2 council member Craig Rice of Germantown are considered for the MCEA endorsement in their re-election bids.
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