Part ONE of our "District 4 Head-to-Head Tour," which seeks to interview all eight candidates running in a special election to replace Councilmember Marilyn Praisner, who passed away in February. A primary will be held April 15, followed by a general election May 13.
Photo courtesy of the Gazette.
Nancy Navarro and I are enjoying lunch at Ledo Pizza in Colesville, a few blocks away from the home she shares with her husband and two daughters. It's a Wednesday in early March, soon after the pollen's started, and we're both stuffy and miserable, but the interview soldiers on. It isn't until after an hour that the current School Board president and Venezuelan native reveals why she's running for County Council, and her voice suddenly drops out, sapped of its normal enthusiasm.
"I'm so not a politician," Navarro says, and you have to believe it. "Deep down inside for me, it's about my kids, it's about my husband from Haiti. They grew up with certain hopes . . . if you want to run for public office, you shouldn't have to deal with all the crap I went through. I will be a pain in the behind for all these people because they weren't counting on it."
She adds, "I could not live with how this district is characterized."
Like all of the candidates running to replace Marilyn Praisner for the District 4 Council seat in this year's special election, Nancy Navarro never expected to find herself on the campaign trail so soon. The councilmember, who passed away seven weeks ago, seemed to be doing just fine after a car accident last fall. "It was weird because I saw her at the Democratic Party Brunch and she looked very strong," Navarro says. "She was leaving the building and I kept yelling 'Marilyn! Marilyn!' and she turned around and asked her husband 'Why are you so slow?' It seemed like she was fine."
Suddenly Navarro, who'd just won a second term on the School Board in 2006, was out pounding the pavement for votes once again. "Seeing first-hand so many of the issues that this district is facing . . . I see myself as the person to take on this responsibility," she says. "My girls looked at me like 'what? are you crazy?'"
"It's a tall order, to follow a lady like Marilyn Praisner," she adds.
so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .
Navarro was warned that many East County residents, like these shown at a Citizens Involved meeting last spring, are concerned about land use and development issues.
At her campaign kickoff two weeks ago, Navarro said she believed in the "politics of possibilities," but some of her fellow Democrats made it clear they didn't buy it. "My opinion is that Nancy Navarro is partly responsible for the current budget crisis," says former candidate Cary Lamari, who threw his support behind Marilyn Praisner's widower Don after County Executive Ike Leggett and other higher-ups asked him to step down. Lamari was inferring that, as current president of the School Board, Navarro supported budget increases for Montgomery County Public Schools (among them, regular pay increases for teachers) that may further exacerbate the county's large deficit.
"It's too early to know how the numbers are gonna come in," replies Navarro. "Folks have not sat down to address the whole deficit. I was surprised that it went from $400m to $297m just like that."
Leggett also warned Navarro about staying in the race, suggesting that she was out of touch with East County voters. Frustrated by living in a dumping ground for subsidized housing in the 1980's and stuck in a building moratorium for two decades afterwards, many residents were drawn to Praisner's passion for planning, earning her four straight terms on the Council.
"To be told that people in this district only care about land use issues and development issues and the ICC . . . I've been lectured that if I don't know the intricacies of these issues, then I won't be able to win," says Navarro. "I would like to demonstrate that the residents care about other issues."
While she may not share Praisner's familiarity with local development, Navarro says she's more than willing to learn. "I tend to be very analytical, study things, get a lot of points of view and that's usually how I guide my decisions," she explains, adding, "I've learned speed-reading."
Opponents have characterized her as the "developer's candidate," but Navarro insists she hasn't even met one. She wants to "to sit down with developers and say 'no, you can't have carte-blanche to do what you want'," but also to explore more "innovative possibilities" for future growth in the County.
"To me it's not so much a matter of 'let's set a number for how much we need to grow' but 'what does a livable community look like?'," says Navarro. "I was born in a city of five million people, Caracas. That's what crazy looks like. I know what unchecked growth looks like."
Developments like the WesTech Village Corner in Calverton have been embraced by East County residents eager for higher-quality restaurants nearby.
Carting around her fifteen-year-old daughter, a student at Springbrook High, has shown Navarro some of the facilities East County is starved for. "My daughter likes that she can walk here [to Colesville Center] with her school friends . . . she'd like to have more here so she wouldn't have to go to Downtown Silver Spring or the Olney Theatre," she says. "My husband and I are constantly chauffeuring her to Silver Spring or Olney, so I hear it."
And the burden isn't just felt by high schoolers waiting to take Driver's Ed. "I was at the new IHOP on Cherry Hill and I waited for, like, an hour," she says. "The people I talk to lament that if you want to go to a restaurant, you have to go to Rockville or Bethesda or Silver Spring . . . I think we need to explore 'what do we have now, what can we bring here that responds to the income levels because we have a lot of low-income residents but we also have a lot of middle-class'."
"Sometimes," she adds, "people tell me 'I forget we have a library here'."
The Fairland Center in Fairland, currently home to Galway Elementary School while its building is modernized.
On the School Board, she's been an integral part of the Kennedy Cluster Project, which aims to reduce the achievement gap between Black students and their White and Latino counterparts. Currently in a trial stage, the Project - located in the cluster with the highest percentage of Black students in the County - brings together different County agencies to provide a "safety net" for struggling students. For instance, Navarro explains, if a school is notified about a pending gang incident, they're forbidden to act on it, but they would be able to contact the police or any other appropriate organization.
"I view school buildings as the epicenter of what's going on outside," Navarro says. "The majority of the schools in the district, if you go inside and close your eyes, you won't believe you're in Montgomery County, it's so diverse."
Despite its rapid growth in the past few decades, that "diverse" population has had increasingly less of a say in how the County is run. As a native of Venezuela, Navarro's goal is to bring those people to the table.
"At our meetings, we'd have the same five PTA people," she laments. "I took it on myself to go into the community and find [people] . . . People say 'are these people really going to vote as a bloc,' but I'm not giving up . . . the reality is we have a growing immigrant community that tends to be isolated."
In order to do so, she explains, you have to go past the PTAs and HOAs and into the streets. "You have to do grassroots. Find out who are the organic leaders in these communities," says Navarro. "In these low-income and immigrant communities, word-of-mouth goes a long way . . . you pass along information that is relevant. You don't do focus groups. People want something that is tangible and relevant."
Navarro expresses frustration with the County's policy-makers who claim to represent communities they may not be familiar with. "I am not so arrogant as to say I can speak for everyone," she says. "It's very easy to be privileged and entitled and say 'I represent all these people' . . . have you ever sat in a shantytown in Caracas with members of your own family? Have you ever had to deal with poverty?"
"Who has been given the wand to determine all things progressive in this County, and where are the immigrants, the people of color?"
While Nancy Navarro claims not to be a politician, she proves to be a woman of the people. And in a suburban community whose original residents are grappling with an influx of younger, more diverse people, Navarro sees herself as the missing link.
"I'm building a legacy, building on the present and looking to the future. I'm respectful of the people who've lived here for forty years, I know what they want, but I also want to build that bridge," she says. "Part of the new paradigm has to be if a person has worked in the community on important issues, you should have the right to run for public office. You should not be delivered."