Councilmember Tom Hucker was elected to the Montgomery County Council in November of 2014. Currently, he is the Chair of the Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee and also serves on the Public Safety Committee. In 2019, Tom was elected as Council Vice President, and in December 2020, he was elected to serve a one-year term as Council President. Tom is one of two Montgomery County representatives on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. He serves as the Vice Chair of the Washington Suburban Transit Commission, the State body that oversees transit service in our region, including the Washington Metro and MDOT. In 2006, Tom was elected to serve in the Maryland General Assembly from Silver Spring and Takoma Park and he was re-elected in 2010. The interview covered topics of candidature for County Executive, candidature for Councilmember At-Large, education, jobs, traffic and affordable housing.
Candidature for County Executive:
Nagender Madavaram: Good morning, Tom. Thanks for giving me time. You run for County Executive for few months. What was the reason to withdraw from the race?
Tom Hucker: Yes, it was a big decision. I mean, there’s two things, I would want your listeners to understand. I was elected by my colleagues unanimously to serve as the Council’s Vice President and then President during the COVID pandemic. So, it’s very, very difficult time. The county performed better than most counties, at the same time, I had a front row seat to see lot of things. We didn’t do very well as a county government and we didn’t respond as well as we should have. The County Council had to get involved in executive branch functions that we shouldn’t. So, for better or worse, I thought it was important to have an alternative. A lot of people urged me at that time to run for County Executive. It was a hard decision because Marc and I have been friends for 20 years. I like Marc tremendously and he’s worked very hard but at the same time, you know the county is more important than any anyone. I ran for County Executive for a little while and it became clear by April that I wasn’t going to win and the deadline to change races was April 15th. So, I spoke to Marc about it. He encouraged me to run for the County Council seat instead and that’s what I did. You know, I’m hoping to get everybody support on Tuesday for return to County Council.
Candidature for County Councilmember At-Large:
Nagender Madavaram: District 5 is a very safe seat for you. Why are you running for Councilmember At-Large?
Tom Hucker: That is a great question. The reason is every 10 years there’s a census and we have to redraw the districts in the county. You’re right I would get reelected certainly in District 5. The voters in the last election voted to change the Council’s composition to provide districts to 7. Lot of community activists in East County wanted to create an East County district all on its own. I represent all those people today. I’ve done a lot of great work for East County. I believe, and I’ve carried every precinct up there in the last election. I gave away more than half of my district to create this East County district because people there wanted to have their own district. I live just South of the Beltway. My district is now where I live, Takoma Park and Silver Spring. We had to add new voters to it. It runs over to North Bethesda as well as some of Kensington. I could have run in that district where I live but I had also urged the Mayor of Tacoma Park to run for my seat. I told her that I was running for County Executive. I didn’t think, I’d be coming back to County Council. So, I didn’t want to break my word to anyone. So, I thought of running in a brand-new district rather than breaking my word to anybody. It just seemed to make sense to run for a vacant At-Large seat, since I’d already been running a county wide campaign.
Nagender Madavaram: I appreciate for keeping your word. Many politicians don’t keep their promises.
Tom Hucker: That’s right, for sure you know, people have low expectations for elected officials. I always want to exceed them.
Nagender Madavaram: Education is priority item in your agenda. You organized a zoom meeting with 3,500 people to discuss issues related to education. What do you suggest to improve education?
Tom Hucker: We found out after the meeting that we had 5,500 attendees. Our school system used to be the best in the region and the best in the state and one of the very best in the nation. It no longer is, it’s not ranked top in the nation and in the state anymore. It’s not ranked tops in the region unfortunately. There are a lot of reasons for that downfall. I really think, we all agree first to have a goal to regain that excellence that we used to have. Education is the number one reason people move here. Families want to be in Montgomery County because that reputation has been number one reason. Businesses want to be here because they can have a very highly trained workforce and their employees can send their kids to great schools. That’s a way to be attractive to your employees. So, we all have to be invested in schools whether we have kids in schools or not. I have two growing children, a third and a 5th grader going to Title One school just five minutes away from here.
We’ve had this growing opportunity gap for a long time, particularly between kids from wealthier families and kids from poor families. White families versus black and brown families, and that has grown over time. There’s a lot of causes for that, but the whole school system has to succeed together. We really need more programs and attention to some of the schools that are behind, and we need to have a plan for each student to succeed. We need a plan for every kid to succeed and you can go to almost any school and parents will tell you they feel like their kid is sort of left behind. Our students have been going through a mental health crisis especially during COVID because so many lost their parents. Grandparents are suffering from isolation. They learned remotely for a year and a half. They didn’t see any of their friends at a very important social time in their life for their social and emotional development. It was very stressful and traumatizing. We haven’t ever had the support for our students even pre COVID. We certainly don’t have post COVID period. So, I pushed hard last spring to get one social worker in every high school. I couldn’t get the votes in the Council but by the fall, we had enough support in the Council. We passed the special appropriation bill to hire 50 social workers, the school system has hired 33 so far, but we really can’t rest. We have to keep pushing until we have not just one social worker in every high school, but also middle school and eventually elementary school too. Counselors, language counselors, other things to make sure every kid has the support.
Nagender Madavaram: The main concern is, education is not getting sufficient funds but you know, 46% of budget is allocated to education. It is huge budget. The fact is, teachers are not getting good pay to reside in the county but administrators are getting high pay. Apart from education, county has many responsibilities. How do you balance the budget?
Tome Hucker: You’re right about $3 billion. You know, I don’t write their budget. The MCPS Superintendent does in collaboration with the school board and then our role, as the Council, is just to fund it. You know, to take the recommended budget from the County Executive and either support that or we have the power to cut it. We have the power to add to it. We’ve fully funded the school system budget. So, you know, I’m happy about that we haven’t ever had to cut the school system budget. It’s grown each year. I talked to parent activists and educators all the time who feel like there’s a fair amount of waste in the system that there are too many administrators in headquarters in Rockville. So, we ended up having too many resources in the headquarters and not in overcrowded schools.
We could have more of those trained resources in the classroom. We don’t have enough school nurses. We’ve had a lot of vacancies to provide not just mental healthcare that I talked about, but physical health as well. Lots of our schools just have gone without a nurse for a very long time. There’s a lot of programs you know, elective programs, athletic programs, field trips, other stuff that are well funded by parents in wealthier areas and then really go unfunded by parents in poorer areas. I can tell you all of us working parents need not just to put kids where they can be safe, but where they can be happy. They make friends and learn to get help with their homework after school. The amount of money we have to spend on before care and aftercare is enormous. I mean, it’s almost as much as sending a kid to college. I think the government could do to make sure we have high quality programs because our kids are very important assets. We have to make sure that they’re learning and succeeding, and a big part of that happens outside of the classroom and after the school day.
Our teachers just got a raise in this budget and they got all kinds of extra work during COVID. So, many teachers were sick, some had quit their jobs. We’re still facing that sort of post COVID disorder. You know COVID is still hanging around. There’s between 800 and 1000 teachers that are leaving Montgomery County. Schools are advertising for teachers right now. We need to do a much better job of recruiting them and keeping our current teachers happy on the job. The school system just made about 11 different appointments of new principals. I hope that those are all going to be successful. I hope they all succeed.
Nagender Madavaram: High tech companies are not getting qualified professionals in the county and moving out of the state. There is a shortage of workforce in some fields. How do you address the problem?
Tom Hucker: Wow. That says a lot. It really shouldn’t be the case in Montgomery County. It’s been a big challenge for years. You know, we have Worksource Montgomery, which is our workforce development agency. They get a lot of federal money for several years. They didn’t have the right Executive Director. She was moved out. I thought the board should have been much more active and assertive about addressing that issue. They brought in a new Executive Director, I think he is qualified and starting to do a good job. It takes a longtime to put programs in place and make them succeed. I think I’ve learned that in many cases we’re training people for jobs that aren’t so much in demand. You know, because of just legacy decisions that were made longtime ago. We’re not training people enough for jobs that are available. You know, Wayne Gretzky said you have to not just know where the puck is but also you have to know where the puck is going. We always have to be training people for the emerging job market. I don’t think we do a good job with that.
I passed a green jobs apprenticeship program as a law in Montgomery County Council to require Worksource Montgomery to create an apprenticeship program to train people how to install solar panels, stormwater devices and energy efficient windows because those contractors all say they can’t find good workers. Just like you said about IT. Those industries aren’t going anywhere, they’re just growing. That’s very important work. I also recently passed a bill that sets aside a portion of our energy tax to the Green Bank. The Green Bank uses our public dollars to leverage private dollars at like a four to one ratio. This will create about 80 to $100 million a year loans for building owners, commercial and residential apartment building owners to make these kinds of energy efficiency retrofits. It is good news for the people who live in the buildings, whether it’s your office or your apartment, because then it’s a much more pleasant environment. You’re not hot in the summer and not cold in the winter, but also, you’re able to save on your energy bills. We’re creating thousands of jobs and doing the right thing for the climate. So, I’m proud of those two pieces of legislation.
Nagender Madavaram: Traffic is another interesting issue. There are many solutions proposed by policymakers. How we can reduce the traffic congestion, particularly on I270 and route 355?
Tom Hucker: I Chair our transportation committee and that’s another thing we could talk about all day. I think there’s a three-part solution that we’ve talked about on the committee. I think we do at least two of the three. One is, we have to maintain our current roads. You know, you’re used to change the oil in your car frequently or keep your house maintained well. You have to do the same thing with your roads as well or it costs you a whole lot later. When I got to the Council there had been for almost 10 years, almost no investment in maintaining our neighborhood roads. There was a recession 10 years ago that was one of the things that was cut and our neighborhoods were falling apart. A lot of people are getting huge car repair bills due to potholes. So, year after year I’ve been catching up on that as the Chair of the committee.
We should also use our roads as efficiently as possible. So, like I270 has a big white shoulder on the left, big white shoulder on the right. I support the proposal to make one shoulder, not two, have a reversible lane strategy because unlike the Beltway most of the traffic on 270 you know is going in one direction in the morning, one direction in the evening. There’s just no reason not to have a reversible lane. I grew up with the main highway in Saint Louis. It has been that way since the 80s that I can remember. I just don’t know why we don’t do that here in the nation’s capital because there’s this asphalt that we paid for and maintained that we’re not using and it causes congestion.
Second thing is we need much more better transit options and other options for people to get around. Not everybody owns a car or can afford to own a car and not everybody wants to own a car. We need to keep improving our ride on bus network, which is one of the best suburban ones in the nation. It hasn’t been in many ways reconsidered to keep pace with new development and population changes. So, we’re actually doing a study now to make sure we’re serving the roads most effectively to serve the greatest portion of the population. We also, for two years, successfully were able to keep ride on free for all the riders to encourage people to ride. When the County Executive proposed restoring the fares, we’ve brought it back just to $1.00. It used to be $2.00. You know, for the foreseeable future, lowered it to $1.00 to encourage people to ride, but we are going to make sure that we have high quality product.
We also stood up bus rapid transit on US 29. That’s going to be in a dedicated lane very soon, but that’s a great high-quality product with extra-long buses if you haven’t seen them. The buses have Wi-Fi and USB ports. You know, better in some ways than riding the metro because you can just put on your headphones and use a laptop or whatever and get all the way down to the Silver Spring metro. Soon that will be expanded to be on New Hampshire Ave as well to connect to the Purple Line and then down to DC and to the Green Line at Fort Totten. We’re already designing new bus rapid transit on Viers Mill Rd from Wheaton to Rockville. A third line from Rockville through the western port of Rockville and Great Seneca up to Shady Grove. A fourth line up and down on 355. All those are approved and under design right now and funded by the County Council. We also spend a lot of money retrofitting our neighborhood roads and intersections to make sure people can bike and walk safely. Lot of our traffic is actually short distance, people driving three or four blocks because they don’t feel like they can walk to the grocery store and get a gallon of milk and walk back safely because there’s no sidewalk. Our kids that drive to school five blocks instead of walking. We have a bike and a pedestrian master plan that we’re following.
The third thing, the COVID showed us that the economy can function pretty much fine with a lot of us working remotely. Even if you get 10%, or 5% of the cars off the Beltway during rush hour, that makes a huge difference. So, we need more incentives. I believe employers to incentivize employees to work from home and to stagger their schedules. If we work with our private sector to keep people at home and off the roads even one day a week.
Nagender Madavaram: You are passionate about affordable housing.
Tom Hucker: Affordable housing is hugely important. It needs to be affordable for all levels of the diversified residents. We have a housing crisis not just in Montgomery County but in the region. I serve on the Board of the Greater Washington Council of Governments. That’s 24 local governments to appoint people to sit on this board and make regional decisions. We hired the best consultants we could find. They did a huge study. They decided there’s a regional housing crisis. We all agreed with that, we brought it to the County Council, we approved to build 4,100 homes per year for ten years. That’s a lot. Last year we only built about 30% of that target. So, we’re not building the housing to meet the demand. It’s great that so many people want to move here. We’ve had a good economy in the Washington region for a long time. That means a lot of people want to move here at all different levels.
We need a lot more housing. We make it very hard to build housing, particularly in Montgomery County, so there’s a lot more we need to do. I could talk about it all day, but generally we need more incentives to build affordable units. Need to remove some of the red tape that makes it much harder to build an apartment building in Montgomery County than in DC or Fairfax or Arlington. I talked to people who do that for a living all the time and they’re very frustrated. Many of them felt that they never want to build homes here again. They’d rather go somewhere else because we just put them through the ringer and often cost too much money while they’re waiting for approvals.