Nagender Madavaram discussed with William Roberts about his candidacy for the County Council. When Roberts became an attorney, the first clients he represented were tenants in fair housing cases. He served as Legislative Director and Chief Counsel for Montgomery County’s own Congressman Jamie Raskin. He served as president of the Montgomery County Young Democrats and currently serves as the president of the Association of Black Democrats of Montgomery County. Roberts has also served as Chair of the Upcounty Citizens Advisory Board, Member of the Manna Food Center Advocacy Task Force, and Chair of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance Board of Directors. He was appointed by the County Executive to the Community Recovery Advisory Group, selected to serve on the Upcounty COVID Committee and the Black Rock Center for the Arts Board of Trustees. Roberts earned his Bachelor of Arts, cum laude, and his Juris Doctor at Howard University. Roberts is running for County Council District 2 seat. The interview covered the topics of redistricting, affordable housing, Thrive Montgomery 2050, economy and jobs, MCPS and why is he contesting?
Nagender Madavaram: Hi William, thank you for joining the meeting. How is going on your campaign?
William Roberts: The campaign is going really wonderful. We launched back in October and been hitting the ground. Reaching to communities all across the Upcounty and all across District 2. I am talking to people about the opportunity that we have to have a new leader with a new vision and experience. You know time is moving quickly, June is fast approaching, but we are building momentum. I got the endorsement from CASA In Action, the region’s largest immigrant rights, social, economic and justice organization. It represents about 122,000 people. I recently got their endorsement in this race. It was the first endorsement of any candidate in this race. I feel like we’ve got good momentum and we’re just going to keep it up.
Nagender Madavaram: New borders are drawn for the district 2. How the redistricting affects your campaign?
William Roberts: Redistricting has taken place and the new District 2, which is a great district but it doesn’t look that much different from the old District 2 but it is still large. You know, the Upcounty District that still contains the majority of the agriculture reserve. It’s a really dynamic district because you’ve got a vibrant rural community. You know if you’re talking about Poolesville, Burtonsville and Darnestown those places want to keep their suburban character. And then you’ve got these bustling population centers in Germantown and Clarksburg that are really driving a lot of the growth, the fastest growing and most diverse area of the county. I want to get out to every community in the Upcounty to hear from people. Share ideas and hear what their concerns and interests are. I think, the person who’s going to be representing this area needs to be a strong voice for all the issues that we’ve got Upcounty but also a strong voice for the newly emerging and diverse communities up here. I think that I can do all that.
Nagender Madavaram: There is no a single At-Large member from the Upcounty. When a Councilmember from District 2 raises issues concerning Upcounty you do not get much support from other Councilmembers. Construction of infrastructure mentioned in Masterplan for Upcounty is not yet implemented. How do you achieve demands of your district when you do not have much support in the Council?
William Roberts: I do think that the nature of the way that redistricting happened is still leaving the Upcounty largely the District 2 and it looks largely the same, you know, minus some tweaks. We have been given two seats. The District 2 seat and the District 7 seat. So, many of the challenges up here that you mentioned, transportation, infrastructure and incomplete road network but also lack of investment in our transit network. I would love to talk about all the issues. You know, not having the same kind of services up here, both in terms of recreation services but also sort of standard county services. We haven’t had a lot of that for a long time, and it’s been an uphill battle. Even if we don’t have a large representative that lives in Upcounty still we can do a better job. I could do a better job for our community reaching out to our At Large members and trying to get them here. I’m excited about for the new Council, we’re going from a 9 Councilmembers to an 11 Councilmembers where the majority of the seats will be with new Council members. I believe only four or so incumbent Councilmembers are running. The majority of the Council will be new people. I think the number one job of the person in this seat is to help the colleagues to understand what’s going on here, help the colleagues to explore the Upcounty a little bit. You know, some county investment has been put in for bus rapid transit and completion of Observation Drive in Clarksburg. We also have other huge infrastructure challenges from incomplete masterplan roads. You know one of the things that I want to do as a new Councilmember is to really educate my colleagues. You know, physically bring them up here and explain what we’re missing and why we don’t have it. I have been helping them to see that to forge those new coalitions will be helpful. Having worked for Congressman Raskin as his Legislative Director, I’ve got lots of relationships with a lot of the people that are running for the Council. I think that you’re also going to need somebody to see who can draw on those relationships quickly. I think I could do that in a different way than anybody knows.
Nagender Madavaram: When the Commission is formed for redistricting the County, Upcounty residents expected one more seat in the Council but it did not materialize. Do you think the population has grown in another part of the County very rapidly?
William Roberts: You know, I was one of the leading voices for the Upcounty during the redistricting process calling for two districts. We know what happened, but I testified on it. I think when you ask the question, do I think the map or the process was fair? I think that the map is fair. Montgomery County is not in the same situation that Baltimore County, for instance, Baltimore County map needed to be challenged in the court because there was some manifest unfairness in the way it was drawn. So, I don’t believe that the Upcounty got a fair shot in it.
Creating a new district in East County is good for the historical nature of the fact that the County Council hasn’t had a dedicated representative. They’re super diverse also, but there’s a way to draw this map and give the Upcounty additional representation it needs. Unfortunately, the redistricting Commission didn’t see it that way. I happen to dislike the process that they chose and keep District 3 the Rockville and Gaithersburg together as a baseline and then draw a map around that because they really didn’t take the opportunity to redraw. They should have also look at a map that didn’t have those communities in the same district and see what you could do there. I don’t know if they would feel better about the process, but they would certainly feel like there was more thorough investigation of all the possibilities. I think that process wise I would have liked to see them go a little bit further to look at different representation models. We are basically ending up with District 2, which is the Upcounty District and then District 7, which has a piece of the Upcounty unit but it’s not a true Upcounty District, and that is what it is. I think as a person seeking to represent the Upcounty that puts more onus on me and my team. I think it puts more onus on us about building coalitions for the things that we need to do to serve the Upcounty. I do think that I’ll be able to work pretty hand in hand with whomever is in that District 7 seat to serve our constituents as well as working with folks from the other seats. So, it’s going to be my job to bring them along and build coalitions with them.
Nagender Madavaram: Affordable housing is a big problem. Essential service workers are living in other counties. There are different opinions to solve affordable housing issues; some people say building of more houses will solve the problem as we see more houses in the market. There’s another opinion that housing market is not a vegetable market. Supply and demand principle doesn’t apply for housing market as builders control the price of the house. Even though you build 1,000 houses the low-income group residents get 150 as the 15% of houses are reserved for low-income group. More than 40% of County population is living in rental properties. MCPS has 24,000 employees. If you add healthcare sector, fire department the number will be very high. How do you address the important issue?
William Roberts: You know housings are a huge issue. We’ve been in an affordable housing crunch for a long time, and certainly COVID has changed a lot. Exacerbated a lot in terms of spiking rents across the region. I think, safe, affordable, accessible housing is a foundational piece of family stability and community stability. We know that there are different ways people live. Certainly, homeownership is still one of the best ways to create family wealth. Now, we have increasing part of our population that rents their homes. You know, in the past rental housing used to be seen as sort of transitional housing. You grow up, you go to school or you move out of your parents’ house, rent for a while and then you decide to buy a home. For various reasons, a lot of our seniors rent to downsize the house. We’ve got a look at this problem in a multi-pronged way on the rental housing side, I mean across the board. We’ve got to create more affordability units in the housing market. I do think that on the rental housing side, we’re going to need to find a way, especially as we come out of the economic crisis created by COVID to help people stay in their homes. So, looking at the affordable rental housing side, we do need to build more housing. And we need to work on the best ways to get affordability into the market. We can’t just rely on the moderately priced dwelling unit program. The program to provide sort of a floor of affordability. We are going to figure out how to increase the stock but also increase incentives for developers to be able to build affordable multifamily housing, because that’s really what we need.
The Metropolitan Washington Council Governments came out with housing forecast for our region, including in Montgomery County and says that we need thousands of new housing units to meet the demand. We’re going to need multifaceted solutions to get at those challenges. I think supporting policies that create more diverse housing types across the county, meaning prioritizing mixed use and mixed income developments. Make sure those are near transit and job centers but figuring out how to incentivize developers to build those units. You know how we focus on future homeowners like first time homebuyers. I think making homeownership more attainable is important. We own our home in Clarksburg. We were first time homebuyers four years ago and thankfully it was four years ago because I don’t know if we would have been able to afford our home now given the rising prices. We need to focus more on making sure that we are supporting first time home buyers to make sure that they can be successful. Things like down payment assistance and also rent to own programs is something that we should do. We need to figure out how to make sure that we’re fully funding rental assistance and homelessness prevention?
If there are no emergency renter protections in place rental costs rise right even now. You know, rents going to bump up and we’re seeing some numbers that are eye popping for people and it’s concerning because we’re going to be in a situation that’s going to be tough for people to stay in their homes. How do we preserve affordable housing and prevent displacement? It’s going to be across the board strategy because the issue is just so multifaceted. It’s not one thing or the other, and we’ve got to put everything on the table to move forward.
Thrive Montgomery 2050:
Nagender Madavaram: There is a lot of discussion about Thrive Montgomery 2050. Is it good for the affordable housing? What is your stand on that program?
William Roberts: You know taking a hard look at Thrive Montgomery 2050, I think there are good parts of it. I think that we focus on to create different housing types around the county is an important aspect of it. I think what we’ve seen, especially in the last couple of weeks is that the Drive is now at the Council stage. There are questions about the office of Legislative Oversight which released a racial equity report on Thrive. Noting some of the deficiencies there that need to be worked out. I think the county should take its time on something that’s so important. We have to remember that it’s just a plan. So, it’s really important that we get it right now. I know, there are some voices pushing forward and saying well, this is not a binding plan. Don’t worry about it. It’s something that we should be focused on because it will guide our thinking and our work as we build the county in the future. So, it’s got some positive parts, but it does need some work. I think one of the areas that I’ve been thinking a lot about the Thrive. What I want to make sure that drive doesn’t do is sort of put one baseline down for every community that accounting in the county. So, I think we need to do is just make sure that this plan works for all of our communities. You know, the Thrive doesn’t take a cookie cutter approach to how it would deal with something like communities.
Economy and Jobs:
Nagender Madavaram: Graduates are getting out of the schools and when they go to the job market, they are not getting jobs because they do not have minimum skills. Companies are not training the students. They are looking for the trained people with the result these graduates are ending up in odd jobs. Proper training gets them high paid jobs. How do you propose solutions for this problem?
William Roberts: I think you hit the nail on the head. We’ve got to prioritize investments that is going to spur economic growth across the field. We can attract new industries and new employers for the region and also to create good jobs for our residents here. As you said, we are going to make sure that our residents and our students are properly trained. It will revitalize our economy. We need to attract new industries and employers for the region and we got to create good jobs for our residents. You have now the Economic Development Corporation that is sort of up and running in a way that it hadn’t been before. I think we definitely need to partner with them more. We should lay out a vision for economic development in the county. You are going to work with our school system to continue making investments in MCPS on the training side and make sure that students are able to get fitted with those skills that need in industries. It’s got to be a collaboration with the Economic Development Corporation. We need to work with the institutions like Montgomery College and universities at Shady Grove to make sure that we are filling the skills gap.
Montgomery College has been a national leader in figuring out how to match up students with skills to be able to get those jobs. We are going to continue in investing in those institutions. We’ve got to invest in small businesses. The County has a lot of small businesses. There’s a lot of home businesses in the Upcounty, particularly in Clarksburg and Germantown. We want people to continue to be entrepreneurial but we also want people to be able to start businesses and help them thrive. We’ve got to make sure that we’re partnering, especially with men, women, and minority owned small businesses to help them succeed.
Whether or not you’re going to give incentives for big businesses to come here and set up a shop. I think we’ve got to think more broadly about what economic development is. One of the reasons that Amazon passed on Upcounty because our transit network and our transportation network was inadequate as well as our affordable housing stock. They picked Virginia because there is good transit network of metro and buses. We’ve to look at investments in our transit and transportation infrastructure as economic development investment. We have to make ourselves ready for that development. I think we’ve got a sort of expand our mind around. You know a broader view of economic development and then the last thing you know the County does have a reputation as not being a great place to do business. I think that folks will quibble, but my take is perception is reality. If people say I’ve heard bad things about this place, I’m not going to locate my business deals and that’s the reality. I think the county has been trying to do a better job with the partnership of the Economic Development Corporation. The County Executive and Councilmember Katz have been leading to really talk to business owners to do better, cleaner, faster the process to get businesses up and running. I think we’ve got to keep taking kind of a holistic approach to make us a more efficient place to do business.
We have lots of opportunities in the Upcounty and District 2 right where we have the biotech corridor and 270. We should be the nation’s hub for biotech and vaccine research. That’s happening from building the lab in Germantown. You know, we got to make sure that our future workforce and our current workforce is prepared with the skills to get those jobs so that we can be talking about how we employ people to live here as well.
Nagender Madavaram: You mentioned economic development is essential for job growth. Recently, I heard that Montgomery County has got $18 billion investment and $800 millions of venture capital. What do you think economic future of this county?
William Roberts: Montgomery County has been the economic engine of the state for longtime. I don’t know if I would say necessarily that we had a bad economic record in the past but there were definitely spots where we needed to improve which is why the Economic Development Corporation was created. I think our economic outlook is brighter. At the most basic level the county has not done a good job selling itself as a place to do business. That’s part of the thing you got to do. You have to trumpet. For instance, investments in the biotech as you just talked about, you got to trumpet that to the world. I think the Economic Development Corporation is helping with that and I think the county at large is on a different footing in terms of the thinking about economic development. Well, I think that this is still a place that people are going to come and do business. We’re competing regionally with Prince Georges County which is attracting a ton of economic development and utilizing the resources that they have. If we do that then I think our economic future can be pretty bright.
Nagender Madavaram: Montgomery residents are not happy with MCPS and some of the residents are moving to other counties. What do you think of education in the County?
William Roberts: I think the biggest issues for the Council to tackle our education, economic, development, transportation and housing. So, without a doubt that quality education is the most powerful driver of success in our society. It’s going to be critical for all of us to be focused on having the best world class education system here. I think every student should be able to have accessible and affordable educational opportunities. I think we need to invest in the lifetime pursuit of education. We are investing in our earliest childhood education programs. I have a 3-year-old daughter. My wife Michelle and I talked a little bit about universities of Shady Grove and Montgomery College. We know that there are persistent opportunity gaps that exists. We need to close the gaps within the school system.
I know parents who end up sending their kids across the county because the particular program that they’re involved is not offered in some schools. We have to see parity in those kind of programs in MCPS. Clarksburg High School was built for around 300 plus kids but it is accommodating 900 plus kids. Other new schools like Wilson, Wims and other schools we’re sort of full or overfilled. That is largely because our county continues to balloon in terms of population growth and we’re going to have to account for that and make up. So, in the school redistricting conversation, I want kids to have access to quality programs everywhere. Some folks at Neillsville and other places in Germantown, older schools that really needed some work. I think redistricting is a hard topic because there are folks, who say yes, send my child to another school where there are resources and programs. There are folks, who say no, they don’t want their kids to be stuck on a bus for hours and hours. I think that’s the most practical matter. We got to understand the Board of Education runs school system but the County Council can be a partner.
You know, as a Council member I make sure that I’m on top of these education issues. I have been as an advocate, keeping in touch with PTA members and partnering with some members of the Board of Education. The Council has been doing well on infrastructure and programmatic issues. A significant expansion of investment in early childhood education benefits kids. We need to make sure that our kids have the full range of career options in front of them. It’s about figuring out, once you’re done in your MCPS career, how you get into other careers? I think we need to do more prioritizing of trade, education, apprenticeships and other career pathways to make sure we’re filling that skills gap and to prepare students for all high demand fields. I think again, the school infrastructure issues are going to be huge in Upcounty.
Why Are You Contesting?:
Nagender Madavaram: You are in comfortable position in Center for American Progress. You are doing good there and you have exposure to national and international policy makers. What made you to run for local elections?
William Roberts: Sure, that’s a great question, so you know I have been a civic, political and community leader in Montgomery County for more than a decade. I’ve worked at all levels of government and served for people in our communities. I’ve only been a public servant in my career because I believe in the power of public service and then being a voice for others. So, you know that I was in Congressman Jamie Raskin’s office when I served as his Legislative Director and Chief Counsel, worked on a host of issues that matter a lot. So, in Montgomery County I am wearing various civic and political hats. I am Chair of the Board of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance. I sit on the board of the of the Black Rock Center for the Arts in Germantown and I’m a member of the Man of Food Center advocacy committee. I also served as chair of the Upcounty Citizens Advisory Board and a member for a number of years and all those roles I’ve gotten to see up close.
You know when the decision came to figure out how to continue the service that I’ve been doing as an advocate and as a community leader. I decided to step up because, we really need a leader. I think especially coming out of COVID where we’ve got. We need a leader who got a base in our diverse and dynamic growing community. We need a new a leader that’s got a new vision and an experience. I’ve been a huge proponent on transportation issues in the county for a long time. We need to increase road capacity and complete our master plan roads. If we’re talking about completing our Master Plan roads in Upcounty let’s think about how we can make that a transit quarter so that people can have access to drive.
I’ve everything in my career and my public service career has been focused on serving the community. We should think that who is advocating for special interests and who focused wholly on the community? I am confident that I can serve the interests and the needs of the most amount of people of county. You need somebody who can represent the widest range of people on the widest range of issues. That’s me in this race. I’m also the candidate that’s got the deepest policy experience across a wide range of issues and levels of government. I just bring a different level of experience and perspective. I go around the Upcounty and talk to people about it. They’re excited for a new voice to be at the table and knowing that I’m somebody who’s voice and vision is connected to experience. I am Managing Director at Center for American Progress and I really enjoyed that work there. I am leading our democracy team, working on issues of voting rights and public trust in government. I’ve never taken my eye off of what’s happening locally and that’s why I’m running.