Nagender Madavaram is the editor of the BetterMoCo.com portal. He discussed with Councilmember Nancy Navarro about her vision, agenda and issues facing the County. This is the second of a 2-part transcript of the interview which covered the topics of economy, jobs, skills development, and relations between the Council and CE.
Nagender Madavaram: MoCo residents are concerned that economic activity is stagnated. There is a Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation for attracting new businesses to the County. Whatever may be the reason, MoCo is not getting new businesses. Some of the political leaders in the county say that Economic Development Corporation is in charge of the economic activity. Do you propose any solutions to the problems?
Nancy Navarro: The Economic Development Corporation is the private-public partnership entity. It’s true, that it was created because the business communities and corporations know what works. They understand what’s happening on the ground and where the opportunities are. I don’t think government is necessarily very good at doing that part. There is no doubt that Montgomery County has a lot of assets; We have people with high incomes, we have some wonderful companies, and therefore we shouldn’t act like we’re very hungry. I think that’s a mistake. For many years, there has been ambivalence about does the County Council own the economic development strategy, or is it the Executive with his departments or is it the Economic Development Corporation? I think it’s all of the above, and that’s why I said earlier that I took the initiative in 2019 to launch an economic development platform because I heard from the private sector and from others that there was not a clear strategic, blueprint and it was all over the place. It was important to bring all of these stakeholders together. We came up with this platform as a strategic blueprint because Montgomery County has tons of assets. We must leverage them every step of the way. We acknowledged in 2019 when I was Council President that we were going to have to be a lot more active in this particular space. Now, of course, the pandemic has had a very negative impact around the country and the world. The County Council very quickly made sure to start putting out a lot of relief initiatives, specifically targeting our businesses from the very beginning.
When you look at all of those relief initiatives, it was initiated by the County Council to make sure that we were ahead of anticipating what their needs are going to be for business recovery. Something like $90 million has been already invested in our business community. You look around and you just have like a decimated business community, so we were very proactive. It’s going to be very important and it’s something that I also pushed for that we have to make sure that we’re ready for post Covid-19. We must make sure that we’re doing whatever we can to support our business community and to expand. And again, going back to these redevelopment projects like Viva White Oak, it’s going to be critical that we do whatever possible to help get this project off the ground. It is absolutely important that we take advantage of all of those major investments that we have already made. I honestly feel this Council is taking this charge very seriously. I think that we’re going to see some positive trends at the same time. We must balance between how do we respond to the needs of the rest of our residents who have been hit really hard and then also create the opportunities for our business community to continue to work, to grow and to diversify as well.
Nagender Madavaram: The world was affected by pandemic but Montgomery County has an advantage in the pandemic. AstraZeneca and other biotech companies are located in the County. They are involved in vaccine research and clinical research. The County has advantages geographically, as well as in technology. Is the County exploring its advantages for business development?
Nancy Navarro: Absolutely, I think that we are exploring advantages and making sure that we are getting jobs and generating income. We have incredible opportunities. I also wanted to reset the perception because sometimes we start going into some rhetoric as if Montgomery County is a horrible place for business. Every day I see an announcement of a new company coming to our county or expanding especially in the biotech life science field. The narrative is so important. Do we have to be a lot more aggressive? Do we need to make sure that we’re constantly marketing the county? Do we push back very hard on a Washington Business Journal article where County Executive Elrich was being very negative about Viva White Oak? The Council sent a letter and we pushed very hard against them because we believe differently, we think that wherever we have opportunities, we need to leverage them. The truth is Montgomery County is a very strong county. If we weren’t, we would not have retained our AAA bond rating from Wall Street. Over all these years the county is going very strong. It has assets that have to be leveraged and at the same time we also have to remember that when we talk about equity sometimes people think Oh my gosh, here we go. It is not another government relief program. Equity is about shared prosperity, so if Viva White Oak and the east county is able to be realized, that means you’re creating a life-sized biotech village in the east county. There are going to be job opportunities for people that are starting out at a graduate level. There will be opportunities for everybody. We have an election coming up. Whoever becomes the County Executive, I believe that you have to have a balanced approach, especially in a county like ours because it’s a very wealthy county. It is home to a lot of businesses and companies but you also have growing poverty. You can’t let one or the other get out of balance. That’s the challenge. I am a strong believer in pushing for aggressive economic development so that we can have the revenues to expand the opportunities. That is what I have always tried to do. I believe there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement, and hopefully this next election hopefully voters are asking these questions as well.
Nagender Madavaram: Particularly, Black and Hispanic youth are not getting high paid jobs due to lack of necessary skills in latest technology. It is proven that the current system is not working. It’s just now you said that Hispanics and Blacks are affected by pandemic. There is a correlation between education and the workplace because low skilled persons are working on the site and getting sick with Covid whereas high-tech employees are working from home in a safe zone. There should be an equal opportunity for everyone to get access to high-tech knowledge. What steps would you take to provide the latest technology training to disadvantaged sections.
Nancy Navarro: You just described it very well. That’s what’s called an opportunity gap because it’s a gap in the access to the opportunity. You know, if you’ve heard me say this, because I’m like a broken record about it. I’ve always talked about how there needs to be an alignment. You know, there must be alignment with MCPS, Universities of Shady Grove, Work Source Montgomery organization and the Economic Development Corporation to make sure that folks are able to access those opportunities. At the end of the day, if we do want to attract companies, we need to make sure that they can have access to a qualified workforce. This is an opportunity for us to create a qualified workforce and every entry point that would put us in a very advantageous position. I keep proposing this as an important aspect of what needs to be done. I think we’ve done some of it, but I feel that it has to be a lot more strategic, and the County Executive knows this because I’ve met with him 1000 times to define and describe this. As I’m wrapping up my service on the Council, I hope that some of these particular elements can come together, and it can be a lot more targeted and much more strategic.
Nagender Madavaram: Corporations are looking for Hispanic woman for diversity in workforce but there are not a good number of Hispanic woman software developers. How do you address this problem?
Nancy Navarro: Yeah, my daughter works for Microsoft though she’s not a programmer. It is clear that communities of color are particularly Latinos and Black people are very much underrepresented in the IT field.
Nagender Madavaram: What role does the Montgomery County Workforce Development Board play in training minority people. Do you suggest any improvements?
Nancy Navarro: There was a lot of problems for a couple of years and the Council was very dumb and very adamant about the fact that there needed to be a major change in the composition of not just the Board but also the organization itself. There were some adjustments during my Presidency. I actually introduced a bill to amend the law because at some point, we thought Montgomery College was going to have to take up that responsibility. Fortunately, they were able to work on our restructuring and now they have a new Executive Director who I think is doing great work. I believe we’re going to see a lot more positive results now.
Nagender Madavaram: When I met you back in 2019, you were not optimistic about the Montgomery County Workforce Development Board. What made you change your mind?
Nancy Navarro: That is right. I have hope in the new Executive Director who will put the organization in the right track.
Nagender Madavaram: An interesting discussion topic is the redistricting of the County Council. So how it is going to affect the county politics?
Nancy Navarro: I am really curious. I can’t wait to get the map or the maps from the Redistricting Commission. I have looked at the latest census results. The census results show that there has been growth in diversity. The trend has just become even more pronounced. I think the Commission has its own unique mission because now they must create two additional districts. They’re going to have to take into consideration all the best practices. I’m very curious to see how it’s going to play out, but I think we can expect that there are going to be seven districts.
Relations Between the Council and CE:
Nagender Madavaram: The County Council and County Executive are not on the same page on many issues. CE vetoed the resolution of the Council recently. Democratic legislature and Republican Governor are working amicably on many issues at the State level but surprisingly, Democratic County Council and Executive have problems in working with the same agenda. You are the most experienced member in the Council. What do you suggest to improve the relations between the two institutions?
Nancy Navarro: I wouldn’t characterize it like that way. I think there’s been a lot of not being on the same page with the governor. There’s always going to be tension, I think with the previous Leggett administration, we were not always on the same page, but there was a sense of respect for the institutions. That is something I’ve been concerned. In the new Council, there has been a little bit of a lack of understanding that you have to have respect for the institution. Even though County Executive Leggett and I maybe disagreed on something, or he disagreed with the Council, we would work things out. That is very important. Unfortunately, in the pandemic it was difficult because it was a matter of life or death. There was no time to just consider whether somebody was going to say something or not. I have a lot of respect for Marc Elrich. He was a colleague. I served with him. We agreed on a lot of things. We didn’t agree on some things but at that point, there were nine council members and he was one. Many times, he voted against the eight Councilmembers, but it didn’t matter because things kept moving along. In this case, he is the County Executive and then you have the County Council. There are certain things that the Executive has to do, and the County Council can’t do it.
There have been so many instances where we just need to get things going. It’s been a tough time. The pandemic has made it even more disruptive. We’re leading the country in vaccination rates in young people. Our vaccination rates are extraordinary even though it’s been tough sometimes. At the end of the day, our residents can recognize that this County Council worked very well with the administration to make all of this happen. We need to do this together. I look back and there were times that were just so extraordinarily hard and stressful because we were not getting any help from the federal government. We were not getting any help from the state. We had to figure that out on our own for a very long period of time. When you compare Montgomery County to other jurisdictions around the country, we can be touted as leading the nation in many of these indicators when it comes to the pandemic. So, we’re not out of the woods but considering how chaotic and how hard it’s all been, we’ve done pretty well.
Nagender Madavaram: Do you think there should be a mechanism to properly communicate between the two institutions?
Nancy Navarro: There is a liaison. The County Executive had a liaison but that didn’t work so well. So, he has appointed another person. We’ll see how that goes. I think that it’s going to be a little bit more complex now that you’re going to have 11 Council members instead of nine in 2022. I’ll go back to the issue of narrative. We have to focus on results and if we look at the fact that this county has just gone through this extraordinary crisis, we did a pretty good job and our residents stepped up as well. We provided the leadership, the resources, and the infrastructure. It has worked well so far. I think that things can always improve, but if we’re going to judge the results of a collaborative approach by where we are in terms of results, this unprecedented historic crisis was handled pretty well. I may have been on the opposite side of the executive or maybe another colleague. But when I look at the totality of the fact that Montgomery County, as one journalist tweeted, there are many Montgomery counties in the country but this Montgomery County is the one leading the nation in vaccination rates and in low case count. It’s important to look at results versus the process. It also means that people must work to make sure that it continues to go smoothly.