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Government & Politics

Council rookie, but with a wealth of experience — and a high-profile regional leadership post

Montgomery County Councilmember Kate Stewart (D) in downtown Takoma Park, where she spent seven years as mayor. Photo courtesy of Kate Stewart.

Kate Stewart initially decided to run for Montgomery County Council about a year ago.

As the Takoma Park mayor, she was working with county leaders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by coordinating vaccine clinics and testing locations.

Stewart organized monthly meetings with the mayors of Montgomery County’s other 18 municipalities to collaborate with the county council and executive.

Around the same time, the council voted to approve a new redistricting map that expanded the number of councilmanic districts from five to seven and the number of council seats from nine to 11 — four are elected at-large.

“With the addition of two districts and two council seats, I saw this as an opportunity to really bring my experience to the county council,” Stewart said. 

Stewart defeated four other candidates in the Democratic primary in July, including outgoing state Del. Al Carr, and trounced Republican nominee Cheryl Riley by earning 87.33% of the vote in the general election last month.

She was inaugurated to represent District 4, a district that looks like a bow tie covering Takoma Park, Silver Spring, Kensington and North Bethesda, earlier this month.

Montgomery County voters elected the most diverse county council in its history, according to Evan Glass, who recently became its first openly LGBTQ president. 

The council has a women-majority, with all six — Marilyn Balcombe, Natali Fani-González, Dawn Luedtke, Kristin Mink and Laurie-Anne Sayles in addition to Stewart — being new to the council, Maryland Matters previously reported. There are also two African Americans, two Latinos and the county council’s first Asian American member.

In the evolving dynamic of the new council, Stewart is seen by her colleagues and Montgomery County political professionals as a pragmatic progressive. 

“This council is a beautiful representation of Montgomery County,” Glass said. “Kate Stewart is a part of this new set of council members and she is going to bring a wealth of experience, knowledge and energy that will really help us move forward together.”

Stewart will chair the Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee, an unusually powerful position for a newcomer.

She also just took on another high-profile gig, becoming chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a regional body consisting of more than 300 elected officials representing 24 jurisdictions in the Washington metropolitan area.

And last week, as the Montgomery County House delegation considered a raft of local legislation ahead of next month’s General Assembly session in Annapolis, Stewart took the lead for the county council on a measure to bring ranked-choice voting to Montgomery County, outlining Takoma Park’s experience with the voting method, noting her “unique and in-depth perspective.”

“Voters can vote for who they really want,” she said.

In an interview, Stewart said her priorities for her term in office include tackling economic development, mental health issues and housing in a way that is inclusive and equitable.

“Making sure that people have safe, stable, affordable housing is central to all those other things,” she said. “We’re not going to have the economic development we need in our county unless people actually have secure housing.”

As Takoma Park mayor, Stewart worked on strengthening racial equity work and community engagement. She put in place programs connecting residents such as lunches with the mayor and establishing the city’s youth council.

Newly-inaugurated Takoma Park mayor Talisha Searcy said the youth council is a “wonderful” opportunity not only for students, but for the city as well.

“To have so many people, so many youth in our community, who are actually engaged in wanting to tackle some of the hard issues has been tremendously helpful for our community,” Searcy said. 

Searcy, who previously served as a city councilmember, said it was a “pleasure” to work with Stewart.

She described Stewart as a “fair-minded mediator” who was able to come up with “workable” solutions even when councilmembers disagreed.

“She creates an environment where you can have candid conversations around what aspects of policies are problematic for you or problematic for your constituents,” Searcy said. “She’s been such a powerful ally, particularly for women that are entering into politics.”

While canvassing during her campaign, Stewart was asked to step inside on a particularly windy day.

She and the voter she met talked about different education issues and the resident shared that she was a Montessori school teacher.

Stewart mentioned that her two children, now in college, went to a Montessori school before starting kindergarten.

“It actually turned out she taught in the school that my children went to, so that was an interesting anecdote to show how connected we are in our communities,” Stewart said.

County councilmember Gabe Albornoz (D) said he’s known Stewart for 12 years, previously working together when he was the director of the county’s recreation department.

He said he recognizes how challenging it can be to chair a committee as a first-term councilmember.

“She’s uniquely positioned to be able to be very effective from day one, in large part because of her experience on the Takoma Park City Council and then as mayor, but also her general work in the community,” Albornoz said.

The pair held a celebration together at a brewery in Kensington following the new county council’s inauguration. 

As a Kensington resident, Albornoz lives in District 4. 

“It was really wonderful to be able to collaborate with her because this is a new district and it’s great to be able to unite and connect folks that live all the way from North Bethesda down to Takoma Park, to get together and get to know each other,” he said.