Kate Stewart is the Mayor of Takoma Park since 2015. Kate sits on the Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and serves as the Vice-Chair. She is the immediate past Co-Chair for the Racial Equity and Leadership Council (REAL) for the National League of Cities. Kate is also a Principal at ConwayStrategic a communications firm. Before working at ConwayStrategic, Kate served as the Executive Vice President of Advocates for Youth. Kate was also a partner in a research and communications firm where she provided strategic advice to a range of progressive organizations. Kate has also taught as an Adjunct Professor at American University and served on the Urban Institutes Internal Review Board. Kate received her BA from Haverford College and her Master of Science from the University of Maryland. Kate has lived in Takoma Park for over 20 years with her partner Jon. They have two children, Jamie and Bridget, who attended Montgomery County Public schools. The interview covers topics of leadership experience, equity, shaping public opinion, traffic, affordable housing, economic development, education and new immigrants.
Nagender Madavaram: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today. You got many endorsements. What experience you can bring to Montgomery County?
Kate Stewart: Well, I’ve lived in Montgomery County over two decades and raised my family here. My two children went to Montgomery County Public Schools. They are now in college. In 2015, I was selected to be the mayor by the residents of our community. I’ve been serving as mayor since then. I’ve learned a great deal of being mayor in our community. I have been working with residents to put in place policies and programs to address issues such as housing affordability, climate change, racial equity, transportation issues and in particular on racial equity. Tacoma Park was the first jurisdiction in this area to put in place a racial equity framework to look at our policies and programs. I was asked by the National League of Cities to Co-chair their Racial Equity and Leadership Council which is a group of elected officials from all around the United States who are working on putting in place racial equity framework in their community. So, I’ve had a great deal of experience. I think we’ve done some amazing work over the last few years. I’d like to bring that experience to the County Council and represent the residents of District 4.
Nagender Madavaram: Most of the candidates are discussing about equity. What do you think of equity?
Kate Stewart: That’s good. I’m glad candidates already talking about equity. It’s a very important issue for our county. I can provide a couple of examples; many times, our conversations focused on how to tackle rental issues and disparity in homeownership in the county. We also need to look at programs to help people move from renting to homeownership and have some homeownership at affordable levels. When I was looking at this issue there’s a lot of research that shows that one of the barriers to homeownership is not having the generational wealth to afford the down payment. So, for example, when we moved to Montgomery County, we first rented and then we were able to purchase our home because my in-laws helped us with the down payment.
Unfortunately, many families, particularly Black and Brown families, don’t have that generational wealth because of hundreds of years of racism and discrimination in our communities and in our institutions. One of the ways to tackle that is to provide people who are first time home buyers with money towards a down payment. In the city of Tacoma Park, we provide people to qualify for the program up to $10,000 in a grant towards their down payment, that helps them purchase their first home. Over the last few years, we’ve been able to move about 12 families from renting to homeownership in our community. That’s one example of what we’re talking about. Another example is how we can think about applying equity in our communities. We were looking at bus shelters at our bus stops, and one of the things that the staff did an analysis of what are the most popular and the most frequently used bus stops. So, we looked at that, but we didn’t stop there and also, we looked at the census data to say where do we have the highest concentration of Black and Brown families in our community. We looked at the most popular, the most used bus stops, and we prioritized putting the bus shelters in those places that traditionally have not been at the top of the list for many reasons. So, that’s another example of how we’ve applied equity. We provide small grants to nonprofits in the community. We’ve also applied a racial equity framework to looking at the grants that we provide. So, we drafted the guidelines for grants to serve certain populations in our community.
Shaping Public Opinion:
Nagender Madavaram: You have expertise in shaping public opinion. What issues you may address in the county by using your experience?
I actually graduated from the University of Maryland with my Master’s Degree. Part of my coursework was to be a good public opinion researcher. You have to be a very good listener. You need to understand where people are coming from in order to be able to connect with them to address their concerns and questions. You need to look for places where there is agreement and commonality so we can move forward with the policies and programs that we need in our communities. So, those are the skills that I have and I used them over 30 years since I began my professional career. I hope to bring those experiences and skills to the County Council.
Do you think toll roads are solution for the problem?
Kate Stewart: So, traffic is an issue in our communities and I think there’s a couple of layers of it. One is we need to increase our public transportation, and move forward with a number of projects that have been being in development over the years. In addition to moving forward with those projects, one of the things that we haven’t done very well is connecting public transportation to people really where they live and work. People go to a doctor’s appointment or wanted to go to the movies at night or out to dinner. You may have a metro stop, rapid transit or a bus stop, but it’s just too far from where they live or work. So, you need to drive or you need to take your car to the public transportation. So, we should make it easier for people to get from where they are, either from their home or their workplace to reach public transportation. That can be done in a number of different ways. Some of it is changing our infrastructure because in some places in our county it’s not even feasible to walk. We don’t have sidewalks or it’s not safe. We need to do better because we need to keep people out of their cars to help us reduce traffic.
Nagender Madavaram: Affordable housing is important issue in the county. Currently, 15% of new houses are reserved for low-income groups but the problem is bigger than 15%. Do you think supply and demand principle will solve the problem?
Kate Stewart: We need to increase supply, but we also need to put in place programs to make sure people aren’t displaced and can stay in their homes. Now you know, we were just talking about transportation a moment ago. When we look along the Purple Line route we know right now that 47% of people who live along the Purple Line are already spending over 30% of their household income on their housing. That’s even before we actually have the Purple Line completed. We need to make sure that we have programs in place that keep people in their homes and they’re not displaced. In Tacoma Park, we do have rent stabilization, and I think it is very important. When we look at how we can create affordable housing. This year, because of inflation, the allowable amount that rents can go up, even with rent stabilization is 7.3%. You can imagine for families, particularly those who have been really impacted by COVID, over a 7% increase in their rents is a great deal of money. So, we need to look at programs like rent stabilization in certain areas in our communities. We also need to look at subsidies to both individual families as well as the folks who own these multifamily buildings, the landlords. I think we need to look at a whole array of programs. In addition, we need to look at programs to help the firefighters, our first responders and our school teachers afford to live in our communities as well.
Do You Have Any Suggestions for Economic Development?
Kate Stewart: You know, I sit on the Vice Chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Board, and that’s a regional board of 24 jurisdictions in the DMV area, or we have Virginia, DC and Maryland represented. You know, when we look across how other jurisdictions are doing in terms of economic development and compare ourselves to it. We still need to do more and we’re not really keeping up as much as we can. I think there’s a couple of reasons for that, even though you know, we’ve been working hard in the county, we still have a reputation for not being business friendly. You know our permitting and licensing process does need to be made easier, particularly for small businesses. Right now, we only have one small business navigator to help navigate all these permits, licensing and other things. I did a webinar in March with women entrepreneurs and women business owners in Montgomery County in District 4 and talk to them about the barriers they face. They said, getting support to navigate all the systems and licensing is really hard. In fact, one of them has her businesses both in Montgomery County and in Washington DC. She said she can just compare the level of services and support she gets in DC versus in Montgomery County. So, I think we need to do better jobs about really supporting the businesses we have here and attracting more to the county.
Nagender Madavaram: The county is spending around 46% of budget on education and it is an important issue. What do you think about it?
Kate Stewart: You know we really need to focus on education. This goes back to the equity issues we were talking about before. Before COVID, I remember being in person at a meeting that the Black and Brown coalition presented and it was a great study and presentation that they did. When they looked at the schools in Montgomery County, particularly those who have higher rates of Black and Brown students. We saw that they had less experienced principals and in addition also, they had less experienced teachers. We really need to look at how we’re supporting our schools across the board. We know that with COVID, the learning gap has really increased among groups of students in our community. We need to address that issue along with mental health issues and wellness. Our teachers, educators, school staff, and students are under a great deal of stress coming back from COVID. When we look at what’s going on around our country with these school shootings and everything the amount of stress. We need to get more mental health counselors in the schools and create environments where our educators can teach and our students can learn.
Nagender Madavaram: You have good experience in Takoma Park in dealing with immigrants from various countries. How do you implement and integrate new immigrants into mainstream?
Kate Stewart: Well, I think it’s really connecting with our communities and understanding what their needs are and how they want to interact with their local government. What they need for their families to thrive in our community? I think it’s really important. It goes back to what we were talking about really listening to people and find out what they need. You know, we need to make sure that we have an accessible government. We try to have our campaign materials in Spanish to make sure that people have those materials in their language. We have many people live in multifamily buildings. So, when COVID first happened, we wanted to have Zoom calls with them to make sure we were connecting with them and they had everything they needed. Even before COVID, we would not only have our sort of regular meetings in our Community Center, but also, I looked for ways that we could connect with members of the community through other means. We did lunches with the mayor, so that was a much more relaxed environment where people could just come and talk about different issues. We would drink coffee, breakfast in the lobby of our multifamily building. So, as people were leaving for work or dropping their kids off from school, they could connect to their local government so they knew who to contact if they did have an issue. So, I think there’s many different ways that we need to reach out to communities, particularly our immigrant communities.
I just wanted to say thank you so much for this opportunity. It’s been great and I appreciate your work to get out more information to people. There are so many elections taking place this year. It’s very helpful to have multiple ways that people can find out about the candidates and get more information. So, thank you Nagender.