ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL JUSTICE: Q&A
Why do you care about economic and social justice?
I’ve spent most of my life in Montgomery County - as a student, parent, public school teacher, and elected official - and have always been struck by how institutional racism, sexism, other forms of discrimination, and economic inequality prevent some people from having the same opportunities as others. From my work to oppose the war in Vietnam and to integrate the University of Maryland campus with Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s to my time fighting for worker rights, affordable housing, educational and racial equity, environmental sustainability, and responsible development on the Montgomery County Council over the past 12 years, I have been focused on reducing poverty and inequality and helping everyone have a fair chance to succeed. I believe that’s why I've already been endorsed by Progressive Maryland, Jews United for Justice, Maryland Working Families, the Green Democrats, immigrant-advocacy organization CASA in Action, and numerous unions - they know that we share a common vision for a more just society and that I would be committed to advancing that vision as County Executive.
Why do you consider raising the minimum wage to be your most important achievement on the County Council?
Raising the minimum wage has already tangibly improved the lives of over 100,000 people and will continue to improve those lives and more in the years to come. An adequate minimum wage is life-altering for families and disproportionately benefits women and people of color. As a Montgomery County public school teacher for 17 years, I also know that the biggest barriers to students’ success are the inequalities that impact their lives, and that raising the minimum wage is thus particularly important for children.
I have sponsored two successful minimum wage increases. Several years ago, I helped convince lawmakers in Washington, DC, Prince George's County, and Montgomery County to join forces and push for higher minimum wages together. I then championed the cause of the workers behind the Fight For $15, and we succeeded last year in passing legislation that will gradually increase Montgomery County's minimum wage to $15 an hour.
What do you mean when you say you want to bring a racial equity lens to county government?
Our county government should be required to consider the likely racial impacts of all of our policy and staffing decisions (we need to consider impacts by gender and other characteristics, too). In partnership with communities and advocacy organizations, we need to evaluate those impacts and be transparent in documenting whether, based on well-researched metrics, our policies are matching our words. We have largely ignored the impacts our policies have on certain communities and that needs to change. Fairfax County already has a racial equity policy and Montgomery County should have one, too.
How will you promote affordable housing?
I want to preserve our stock of what is called “market-rate affordable housing,” which fills an important gap in the housing market. Our master plans have unnecessarily targeted many of these apartments for upzoning wherein the county would get a small number of apartments with some limitations on future rent increases but lose substantial market-rate units. Currently, these affordable, unregulated units have rents substantially lower than the high-end apartments that are being built; their loss would be likely to increase competition among renters for the remaining naturally occurring affordable units that are available, which is why I am committed to protecting them.
I also am a strong supporter of just-cause eviction laws and rent stabilization. I worked hard to strengthen Takoma Park’s rent stabilization law when I was on the Takoma Park City Council and would like to introduce a limited rent stabilization plan in the county that would focus on properties near Metro, the Purple Line, and major BRT hubs (I would not extend stabilization to new construction or existing buildings that already have moderately priced dwelling units, or MPDUs).
We need to have a serious discussion about converting our affordable rental housing into ownership opportunities, too. Homeownership has been identified as one of the major contributors to differences in wealth creation between White communities and communities of color, particularly the African-American community, where the lack of ownership has historically limited their ability to create wealth. If affordable housing remains primarily rental housing, narrowing the wealth gap will be extremely difficult.
Finally, I have been trying to create a pilot project to build housing for our homeless population at a feasible cost, and, as County Executive, I plan to continue to support the nonprofit community’s efforts to provide affordable housing for the special needs population.
How will you ensure that immigrants feel welcomed in Montgomery County?
I would continue to support the approach in Montgomery County that treats immigrants with respect. Our police do not take custody of people based on legal status and do not inquire about legal status during investigations or arrests. We do not enforce federal immigration laws, and we do not cooperate with ICE unless a person is in the prison system for a serious crime. Undocumented residents also already have access to county services, except in cases where federal law denies them access.
I have championed issues important to immigrant communities throughout my career. One of the first things I did on the Takoma Park City Council, for example, was to visit El Salvador in 1988 to try to assist Santa Marta and other displaced communities who were pushing the government to allow them to return safely to their villages from refugee camps across the Honduran border. In the early 1990s, I helped to advocate for the first day laborer centers - when few other people would - and led Takoma Park to establish the first one. Since then, I have partnered with immigrant-advocacy organizations to work on a variety of other issues important to immigrant communities.
At the most fundamental level when I think of immigration issues, I think of people fleeing the legacy of violence and war that was perpetrated by the US government’s continual support of some of the worst dictatorships on earth. Many countries for decades denied basic human rights, concentrated all land holdings in the hands of a few families, and operated death squads armed and trained by the US military. When the wars ended, our government took no responsibility for supporting equitable reforms, rebuilding economies, and disarming paramilitaries. So despite the formal end of wars, many countries have remained unstable, lacking in civic institutions and paralyzed by violence. We have an obligation to people who have fled messes we played a major role in creating; I would not want to send human beings back to those messes.
What are your stances on women's issues?
I fundamentally believe that a woman’s body is solely her own, and only she has the right to make medical/reproductive choices. I don’t believe that the state has any legitimate interest in legislating in this area. In land-use planning that gives preferential treatment to one hospital over another, I have emphasized the need for the hospital policy to be strictly pro-choice across the entire range of reproductive issues. I was the only Montgomery County Councilmember who raised issues about Holy Cross on the Montgomery College campus, and I have questioned what, if anything, can be done about victims of sexual violence arriving at or being taken to local hospitals which don’t offer the full range of reproductive choices, such as the morning after pill.
I also think we need to focus on pay, promotion, and hiring within the county workforce. We will do a thorough review of our policies and our classification system and make sure that people doing similar work receive equal pay. My hiring practices will ensure compensation packages do not reflect gender biases, and my selections for positions that I appoint will create a diverse workforce in every way.
In addition, I think that we have to be deliberate about addressing attitudes and beliefs related to sexism (and racism) early on in elementary school, and consistently, so that children are clear what the nature of social interactions are supposed to be like and not be like. When I was an elementary school teacher, I can’t think how many times there were incidents of inappropriate behavior by boys that were dismissed with the phrase “boys will be boys.” This dismissal does nothing but reinforce the boys’ behavior while sending the message to girls that such behavior is to be expected. Clear discussions about consent should also be a requirement in health classes beginning in middle school and we should expand on the Choose Respect Montgomery programs currently coordinated through the Family Justice Center and Montgomery County Public Schools.
Finally, I would argue that my entire policy agenda is about helping women, as every issue of economic and social justice affects hundreds if not thousands of women throughout the county every day. Policies that advance economic justice, like paid leave, fair scheduling, and the minimum wage, to name a few, often disproportionately benefit women because women make up the majority of low-wage workers affected by these policies. I was a leader on the county’s paid leave and minimum wage legislation, and fair scheduling is one additional issue I’d like to address as County Executive. I also intend to focus on solutions that will let us fund early childhood education and childcare - while improving the quality of life and interactions in the early years is important to all of us, it is of particular importance to women, who are usually the primary parent of young children, and a lack of affordable, high-quality childcare often leaves parents, particularly women, with less flexibility in their work schedules, which can be an impairment to advancement in their chosen professions.
How should we reform the criminal justice system?
Our entire criminal justice system still focuses far too much on punishment and far too little on rehabilitation. This focus too often relegates people to a lifetime of crime by leaving the issues that might get them into trouble with the law unaddressed, costing them their jobs, and making it near impossible to find new work because of their criminal records. People of color are disproportionately affected. Montgomery County needs to be a leader in fixing this problem.
The county already does some good work in this area which I strongly support. We have an active diversion system in which we try to keep people out of jail, in large part by directing them to community-based services that can help them address any issues they have. I also successfully sponsored ban the box legislation (which makes employers perform background checks at the end of their application processes rather than at the beginning to reduce the likelihood that employers will discriminate against job applicants who have criminal records) in the county before the state acted on the issue. Still, there is much more work to be done.
As one example, I think bail reform is important and strongly support it. I believe incarceration should be used when people present a genuine threat to the community, not when people who would otherwise be considered safe to return to the community lack the ability to pay for bail. If we think there’s a price a person can pay that would justify keeping them out of jail, then there’s not a public safety justification to require bail at all. I would also like to see the state legalize marijuana and decriminalize other drugs - people addicted to drugs should be getting treatment, not stuck in prison.