After two council terms, Fitzwater running for county executive

Steve Bohnel, The Frederick News-Post, Md.
·4 min read

Mar. 23—In her seventh year on the County Council — with well over a decade of public school teaching experience — Jessica Fitzwater will formally announce she is running for county executive Wednesday evening.

Fitzwater (D) said during an hour-long interview Monday she is running because she is invested in the Frederick County community and wants to continue her collaborative approach as a council member in the county's top government post.

Fitzwater is the first candidate of either political party to officially announce an intention to run for county executive. The primaries will be held June 28, 2022, and the general election is Nov. 8, 2022.

"It might be the teacher in me, that lifelong learning kind of approach that I take with my students," Fitzwater said. "I seek out information, I ask questions, I take the time to listen to all sides. And I really feel strongly that we need a leader that will use that same approach."

Fitzwater, 37, credits her parents for getting involved in public service — they aren't necessarily political, but through volunteering and local outreach, they demonstrated the power of being involved in the community.

She said Livable Frederick — the county's long-term planning document introduced by current County Executive Jan Gardner (D) — is a valuable "recipe book" to deal not only with traditional planning issues like growth, but also areas like affordable housing, public health disparities and expanding an already strong, diversified economy.

Representing County Council District 4 — the eastern side of Frederick, along with parts of Oakdale and Lake Linganore — Fitzwater has not shied away from controversial issues during her time in office.

She has been critical of the 287(g) program run by Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R), where sheriff's deputies are trained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone booked into the county's detention center and begin deportation proceedings if deemed necessary.

Some political observers have suggested the county executive or council members withhold or decrease funding from the sheriff's office as a show of opposition to 287(g).

But the sheriff's office is a separately elected office with autonomy over its own budget, policy and other decisions, Fitzwater said. So if a future county executive were to cut from the sheriff's budget, that doesn't mean Jenkins or a future sheriff couldn't reallocate funds to the 287(g) program, she added.

Future action likely hinges on if Jenkins is re-elected as sheriff next year or if someone replaces him and what their priorities are. One of the options a future county executive and County Council could pursue is creating a county police force, thus taking some law enforcement power away from the sheriff.

"I am not close-minded to anything that would improve public safety in our community," Fitzwater said of that latter possibility.

She also was involved in implementing Question D with the county's firefighters union, which set up collective bargaining and a binding arbitration process. More than 70 percent of voters supported that ballot issue in 2018.

Fitzwater was happy with the process and corresponding legislation, noting it provides more opportunities for the county's firefighters to negotiate at the bargaining table.

The International Association of Firefighters Local 3666 (IAFF 3666) announced recently they would continue to challenge the legislation in court. They note the ability for the county council to cut from a neutral arbitrator's decision does not meet the requirements of the charter amendment.

"You never please everybody," Fitzwater said. "If you go into running for office thinking you're going to please everybody, you're going to be very disappointed."

Angela Spencer, former chair of the Human Relations Commission, has worked with Fitzwater on issues related to that group and has seen her in various other venues countywide.

Spencer, who lives in the Ballenger Creek area, said Fitzwater is fully invested in the community and looks forward to her campaign.

"I am very excited for her with this challenge she is about to embark on," Spencer said. "I believe what Jessica has presented to the community over the years is a true investment ... and genuine concern for everyone in the Frederick County area."

Kavonte Duckett, who first met Fitzwater in 2014 and has run for County Council himself, pointed to Fitzwater's collaborative approach as an asset to county government.

"She's willing to listen across the aisle, and that's a big piece, especially in today's political climate," Duckett said.

In many ways, Fitzwater said, her day job as a public school teacher has prepared her for this campaign, as the world of education is "highly politicized." Many decisions about education are made by elected officials, stemming from the local Board of Education to county council members to state or federal representatives, she added.

"I learned very early that I needed to pay attention to what the decision makers were doing," Fitzwater said. "If I wanted to stand up for my school and my students and my colleagues, I really needed to pay attention to what our elected officials were doing.

"And that's what really got me interested in local government in the first place, because I wanted to know what was going on."

Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel