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New Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro hopes her message appeals to core constituents

By Luz Lazo,

Standing on the podium, Nancy Navarro looked out across the room, her political future — and her political past — staring back at her.

There were the business leaders eager to hear where Navarro, the new president of the Montgomery County Council, thought the county was headed. There were the local officials taking stock of one of the county’s new leaders. And there were the “dreamers,” four young immigrant men who, like Navarro, had spent months lobbying for the immigrant education bill known as the Dream Act.

Taken together, the people assembled that morning last month in a Bethesda ballroom represented the political world Navarro must navigate as the first Latina to preside over the County Council.

Indeed, as the council prepares for its first meeting of the year on Tuesday, Navarro knows she faces the sort of test that confronts many a rising politician. She must broaden her base and her agenda even as she nurtures the continued backing of core supporters, in her case the “dreamers” and other immigrant groups, who were instrumental in her early success.

In interviews and in appearances like the one in Bethesda, Navarro is honing a message that she hopes will appeal both to her constituents in and around the Hispanic hub of Wheaton and to residents in the rest of the county.

“Everybody wants to have access to a high-quality education, everybody wants public safety, everybody wants affordable and high-quality housing, and everybody wants access to transportation,” Navarro (D-Mid-County) said in an interview. “We all have the same needs.”

At the top of her agenda, she said, is seeking state funding for major transportation projects such as the proposed light-rail Purple Line that would connect Bethesda and New Carrollton.

Transportation is an issue that has broad appeal and that is quite different from the issues that have defined Navarro’s time in public service.

Navarro, who is 47 and was born in Venezuela, started her career running a Silver Spring nonprofit group that helped low-income Latino children and their families. She served on the Montgomery County Board of Education for several years before joining the County Council in 2009. She lives in Colesville with her husband of 21 years and their two daughters.

Over the years, Navarro has focused her political energies on issues such as the achievement gap for minority students. She has lobbied for greater language access for the growing Spanish-speaking community in the county. And she does so knowing that she represents an area of the county with the highest concentration of Latinos, in a county where minorities are now a majority of the population.

Her stance on immigration, including her opposition to Secure Communities, a federal program in which local police share arrest data with U.S. immigration authorities, has cheered her political base.

But her positions have also made her a target for criticism from people who view her as too aligned with one segment of her constituency.

“I just don’t see where she is reaching out to all Marylanders,” said Brad Botwin, a longtime Rockville resident and founder of the anti-illegal immigration group Help Save Maryland. “What is she adding and who is she reaching out to? Not me.”

But some fellow politicians say Navarro is following a typical path.

“Everybody starts out with a greater focus on narrower issues, but that’s fine as long as you begin to recognize and appreciate the broader issues that your colleagues have,” said Del. Benjamin F. Kramer, who lost to Navarro in the 2009 special election for County Council.

And in some respects, what were once narrow issues around immigrant needs have grown in importance as the makeup of the county has changed.

“We have a growing Latino community in Montgomery County, and that comes with its needs and particular issues that are important and relevant,” Kramer (D) said. “As far as her being the voice of their behalf, that is a positive. But in order to reach out to all her constituents she has developed a broader perspective.”

Navarro’s district is anchored by Wheaton, which has the county’s highest concentration of Latinos and is one of the most diverse communities in the region.

Even political critics view her pride in her heritage as more valuable now that the affluent Maryland county is home to so many second and third generations of Hispanics, children of immigrants who in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s fled impoverished and volatile regions of Latin America.

In the past decade, the Hispanic population, which now numbers more than 166,000, became the county’s largest minority group.

They now make up 17 percent of the county’s population. That growth, combined with the rising number of Asians, blacks and other ethnic groups, has helped make Montgomery a majority-minority county.

As an immigrant herself, Navarro says she embraces the change.

“It is personal to me, but I think it should be personal to everybody that lives in this region,” she said. “Minority communities used to be seen as little pockets in the county, but that is no longer the case.”

In the 1990s, Navarro co-founded Centro Familia, a group that enabled Spanish-speaking women to become certified as child-care providers in Montgomery. (Several years after Navarro’s departure, Centro Familia closed amid an FBI investigation into the organization’s financial practices.)

Navarro was elected to Montgomery County Board of Education, serving from 2004 to 2009, during which she was president twice. In 2009, she was elected to the County Council in a special election. She was reelected in 2010.

Navarro, who spent part of her childhood in the United States, came here for good for college and settled in the Washington area more than two decades ago.

Her immigrant experience, although different from that of many Latin American immigrants who were fleeing political persecution or poverty, has been an engine in her past political endeavors.

She joined the school board after seeing a growing number of non-English speakers in the school district who struggled with the language just as she did more than three decades ago when her parents lived in the United States for a couple of years.

“That is what drew me to run in the very beginning. First, really focusing on the academic achievement gap, but now as I am on the council I want to make sure that everybody that calls Montgomery County home has the opportunity to live a great life and to pursue their potential,” she said.

During her tenure in the school board, she was known as an effective champion for disadvantaged students. She complained that County Executive Isiah Leggett’s budget shortchanged the school system and put at risk key programs to help English-learning, low-income and minority students.

Now even as she tackles issues like transportation, she will be doing so from the perspective not of people who will build infrastructure, but from the view of the people who depend on public transit to get around, said council member Valerie Ervin (D-Eastern County), a Navarro ally and the first African American woman to have held the council president seat.

“A lot of those people live in the communities that we represent,” Ervin said.

“It is important to have someone like council member Navarro who can speak on behalf of so many of these communities who have been voiceless in the past,” she added.

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