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Takoma Park seals its reputation as a political nesting ground

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The center of power in the county, state and even at times the federal government is not Washington D.C., but a cozy city nestled just north of it.

During the last few decades, Takoma Park has transformed from a small town home to minority religious community to a progressive political haven and the crucible where political careers begin.

For a small city of 17,000 people, it is home to a long list of political players, such as Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-8), newly elected Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot and three members of the County Council George Leventhal (D-at large), Marc Elrich (D-at large) and Hans Riemer (D-at large).

“When you have a political belief, be absolutely fearless in promoting it,” said political activist Robin Ficker, who was born in Takoma Park. “Speak your mind and speak your mind until the heavens fall and don't let anyone intimidate you. It's a belief that springs from Takoma Park.”

Ficker, who has criticized Takoma Park for having too much influence in the County Council with three at-large Council members living there, said he admires the community for its willingness to engage in political activism.

Founded in 1883 by Benjamin (B.F.) Franklin Gilbert, a developer who purchased a large piece of land, tucked away in the southeastern corner of Montgomery County next to the nation’s capital, Takoma Park would quickly become known not only as a hub for politics, but also religion.

In 1904, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a Christian sect that observes the Sabbath on Saturday rather than Sundays, moved its headquarters to Takoma Park, founding Washington Adventist University and Washington Adventist Hospital.

But in the last few decades, the City transformed from a small sleepy town and home to Seventh Day Adventists, to a magnet for political activism and progressive politics, earning the derogatory moniker, “The People’s Republic of Takoma Park.”

“Takoma Park is a small town within a big megalopolis,” said City Council member Terry J. Seamens (Ward-4).

Longtime residents said it is unclear when exactly Takoma Park became political, but many credit former mayor Sam Abbott as the reason why.

Elected mayor of Takoma Park in 1980, Abbott used his five years serving as mayor to push the City’s agenda toward a progressive social conscience.

In 1985, Abbott pushed the City to become a “Sanctuary City.” With refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala flooding the United States fleeing war, many headed to churches in Takoma Park that were offering sanctuary to refugees and immigrants who illegally crossed into the United States and could otherwise be deported.

Soon after, the City Council, led by Abbott, passed an ordinance declaring Takoma Park “Sanctuary City,” prohibiting city officials and law enforcement from participating in immigration enforcement.

“Sam Abbott was a firebrand. He was probably one of the most outspoken people in Montgomery County,” Ficker said.

Ficker said Abbott was relentlessly outspoken and a free speech activist who believed in pushing boundaries, who would lead protests in the County Council chambers frequently.

Fickers credits the City’s left-leaning political activism to Abbott’s outspokenness, which Ficker dubbed the “Takoma Park Concept,” speaking one’s mind as much as possible.

“He had a persona, very progressive, very actively engaged -- he personified that,” said County Executive Ike Leggett about Abbott.

Since the days of Abbott, the City has taken a progressive bent, seeing itself as a trendsetter for the rest of the County. Takoma Park was the first place in the County to declare itself a “nuclear-free zone,” to ban plastic bags and polystyrene, and set some of the strictest recycling ordinances.

“We like to be first and on the cutting edge on issues,” said Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart.

But some in the County think that the City has too much influence in County government. Ficker, who recently campaigned for months for a term-limits referendum for members of the County Council, said that there is a “Takoma Park overload,” with three at-large members of the County Council lived in Takoma Park.

County Council member and Takoma Park resident George Leventhal heard the criticism so frequently he took to Facebook, a place where he frequently opines, to suggest other parts of the County should be as politically active as Takoma Park.

Leventhal, who did not grow up in Takoma Park, said he chose to move there partially because of its affordability and convenience to the Metro’s Red Line, but also because of the City’s political environment.

“I mean it was something that was appealing to me,” Leventhal told the Sentinel. “I think for people who are interested in politics, a community that has a very lively political environment is attractive.”

@neal_earley

 

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