Fifteen years after being elected the first Latina to the Maryland General Assembly, Del. Ana Sol Gutiérrez (D-Montgomery) considered her choices: run for reelection or "see what other options were available."
Gutiérrez, 75, chose Option B, and she is joining the crowded race for the District 1 seat on the Montgomery County Council. Frustrated by the slow pace and conservative nature of politics in Annapolis, Gutiérrez said she wants to fight for immigrant rights and access to education in the place she has called home for nearly her entire life.
"One out of nine is certainly better than one out of 141, plus the Senate," Gutiérrez said. "I clearly expect that we will be able to move the needle to implement necessary changes to our county government in ways that cannot be done at the state level."
The District 1 seat is filled by Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who is term-limited and running for county executive. In the Democratic primary — which in heavily Democratic Montgomery is akin to securing the seat altogether — Gutiérrez faces attorney Reggie Oldak, social worker Dalbin Osorio, former Kensington mayor Pete Fosselman, activist Bill Cook, former Planning Board member Meredith Wellington, and Andrew Friedson, adviser to Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot. Richard Banach is the only Republican who has filed to run for the seat.
Gutiérrez's political legacy is one of many firsts. When she won a seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education in 1990, she became the first Hispanic elected to a Maryland school board. She was the first Latina elected to the General Assembly in 2002. Her 2016 bid for Maryland's 8th Congressional District would have made her the first Salvadoran American elected to Congress and the first Hispanic member of Maryland's congressional delegation.
She came to the United States with her diplomat parents from El Salvador at 5 and went on to become an engineer and official at the Transportation Department in the Clinton administration.
Yaheiry Mora, director of the nonprofit Casa in Action, said Gutiérrez's candidacy offers an opportunity to reshape the county government in a way that better reflects the community.
"There is symbolism, not only for the Latino community," Mora said. "It is a shame that in a county where you hear legislators always talk about how diverse it is, it's not representative in county government and in the county council."
Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County), who in 2013 became the first Latina to serve as president of the County Council, spoke along similar lines.
"There's no doubt that Montgomery County, given its demographics, definitely needs leadership that reflects its community," she said. "I believe we've made some gains, but we're not there yet. Maybe in 2018."
Navarro's district, which includes Wheaton, has the largest proportion of Hispanic and Latino residents of any district in the county. By contrast, District 1 has Montgomery's largest share of white residents.
Gutiérrez said she is confident that her long-standing ties to the community will help garner enough support to win in District 1.
"They know me as well as I know them," she said, adding that she has lived in her Chevy Chase home since 1968.
Immigration has long been a focus of Gutiérrez's political career. But the election of President Trump has renewed her concerns about "a long string of offenses from racism to xenophobia to disrespect for women and for Muslims." In the county, soon after Election Day, churches with large immigrant congregations, as well as Jewish communities, were targeted with threats, she said.
"We've been so supportive in our language, but I want it to be evident in our actions that we really do provide the protections to these very vulnerable communities, and I'm not just talking about Latinos," Gutiérrez said.
A major disappointment from her time in the House of Delegates came in Annapolis's handling of the Trust Act, Gutiérrez said, which passed the House but died in the Senate. The act would have limited local police cooperation with federal immigration-enforcement efforts.
Gutiérrez said education has been another concern since her early days on the school board, and she wants the county to do a better job closing the achievement gap between poor students and their more-affluent peers.
Because she is running for County Council, Gutiérrez cannot seek reelection as District 18 state delegate. But serving on the council, as opposed to in the General Assembly, comes with its benefits. Council members work full-time, while delegates work part-time and make considerably less money.
The switch has happened before: Council member Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County) served two terms as a delegate in District 20 before winning his seat on the council in 2014. And Council member Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) served in the House of Delegates from 2006 to 2010 until being elected to his current role.
Gutiérrez is running under the county's new public financing system, which requires candidates to collect a certain number of individual donations between $5 and $150. Candidates hoping to qualify for the program are barred from accepting corporate donations or contributions from political action committees. Those running for district seats must raise at least $10,000, with a minimum of 125 donations, to qualify for their first installment of public funds.
"We're going to have a brand new set of elected officials," Gutiérrez said. "I think that I bring a level of experience and knowledge that could be extremely helpful for Montgomery County."