Mary Lehman has been projected to win in the county’s District 1 primary election. While pundits are gearing up to gauge the reasons for her winning and what to expect from our new district 1 councilmember, here goes my take.
One of the main reasons she has made a commendable win in this primary is because she has presumably received the entire “Dernoga Block” votes. Mr. Dernoga has been the two terms council member in this district and has a solid followings among the district 1 voters. Being Dernoga’s administrative aide for a number of years, she has been his strong supporter and has worked closely with him on a number of issues. Thus, though she may have been unknown to many of the district’s voters, receiving the “Dernoga votes” wasn’t that difficult for her.
She has also been a community activist in West Laurel and has served as the president of the local neighborhood association there. Not surprisingly, she pulled strong supports from her own neighborhood and the surrounding areas too.
Some may also argue that the votes against her all divided among her four opponents, all of them are African Americans. District 1 is the part of the county where most whites live; thus her four opponents did not have much support to begin with. Fredrick Smalls, being the most experienced one in local government came as a distant second.
Having worked with Dernoga and the MD Delegates Joseline Melnyk, Mary isn’t quite unknown to how local governments work. She has also worked on the county’s school system as a special representative of Mr. Dernoga. All these experiences should make her comfortable with her new job at Upper Marlboro, assuming yesterday’s primary serves as the de-facto general election in November.
She however understands the challenges she is facing as a Dernoga replacement. As in one candidate forum, she said “Once elected, I’ll have a big shoe to fill”. Being an experienced attorney in the land uses and zoning legislation, Dernoga has earned a reputation among his supporters and hardcore foot soldiers. With a background in journalism, it will be interesting to see how Mary makes the Dernoga camp happy.
On the flip side, Lehman will have an opportunity to reach out to folks who have felt repulsed by Dernoga’s often heavy handed approach. For example, Dernoga’s activism in the zoning matters has earned him foes in quite a few quarters. Folks, who want smart growth with modern zoning legislation such as Form-based zoning, call him anti-development and obstructionist. Members of this group charges Mr. Dernoga for his opposition to such zoning regulations in Rt 1 corridor re-development in North College Park. Also, some sections in county’s religious communities have not found him as their friends for his roles in cases involving growth of their institutions. His loss in the $3.7 million Reaching Hearts lawsuit case is an example, they claim. While Dernoga saw these matters strictly through his black-and-white zoning lens, members of these faith groups charge him for failing to understand the federal laws guaranteeing religious freedom.
Public Safety and education are other hot button issues that Lehman will be facing once she assumes her office. This will happen especially at a time when the county is facing tough economic downturn and furloughing its teachers and police officers and struggling to find source of funding. With State’s funding in development projects going down, the county will be forced to cut corners and will have to be judicious in its future spending. A more thorough audit of its existing budget will have to be worked out. Thus experience and knowledge in the county’s inner working will be crucial for any new council member.
She will also have the opportunity to help bridge the gap between the residents living in north College Park with the University of Maryland, located just south of her district boundary. For a number of years, there has been an atmosphere of cultural clash between the university and the residents on issues ranging from economic development, public safety and resource sharing. Some blame this part to the “un-caring” style of management of the outgoing UMd president, others blame, again, to now “former” councilmeber “Thomas E.” Dernoga.
Mary thus has an opportunity to work and build bridges with the communities that have long felt rebuffed by Dernoga’s combative style of governance. Mary said she will have her own style of governance other than Mr. Dernoga’s. “ I am my own person with my own ideas and opinions. I am a journalist by training, not an attorney like Tom, but I am a deliberative and thoughtful person.” – she claimed in an interview with me.
Only time will tell how much difference can she make in her new job in Upper Marlboro.