I meet a lot of candidates for elected office and nearly all are ready with their two-minute elevator speech about why they are running. I like great ideas and enthusiastic candidates as much as the next voter, but I find people’s personal stories equally intriguing.
That was certainly the case when I interviewed Natali Fani Gonzalez who is running for the Montgomery County Council District 4 seat being vacated by Councilwoman Nancy Navarro who is term-limited. The more Natali revealed about herself, the more her intelligence, strength, passion, and perseverance shone.
I quickly found myself thinking, “Wow, this woman embodies all of the qualities we need in leadership.”
I knew I needed to tell her story so liberal and centrist voters – women and men – understand the value of supporting Natali. Most women candidates whom I interview come from humble beginnings and endure real struggle, typically early in life. It’s not surprising that they have empathy for others and a clear vision of a better future, for themselves and then for the folks, they hope to represent.
Natali Fani Gonzalez arrived in the United States at age 16 from Venezuela speaking no English. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother’s desire to protect and provide her daughter with a future full of possibilities and opportunities landed them in Langley Park, a few blocks from Long Branch, in 1996.
It was traumatic – being a teenager, leaving everything she knew, coming to a country where she did not speak the language or understand the culture or customs. Natali was cleaning houses to help her mom make ends meet when most kids her age don’t want to clean their own room. Through it all, Natali kept a positive attitude and worked hard in every area of her life, and she triumphed.
When Natali began school, she was placed in an ESOL class. Within two years, she had mastered the English language enough to discontinue ESOL, and she scored almost perfectly on the math portion of the SAT. Natali set her sights on a four-year college even though her school counselor said it was unlikely she would be accepted. Instead, she advised Natali to go to community college. In what has become her trademark style, Natali Fani Gonzalez decided she was not listening to a naysayer. She applied to Goucher College, was accepted, and won a full scholarship, earning degrees in political science and international relations. She also served on the Goucher College Board of Trustees after she graduated. Pretty incredible for an ESOL kid who was advised to aim lower.
Natali took her first professional job as a lobbyist for CASA, advocating at the local, state, and federal levels for immigration reform, the passage of The Dream Act, economic justice, and quality health care for all. She knows from experience the struggles good people face trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Her passion is empowering young people so that they know they have a voice and a choice in planning their future. She knows firsthand the courage, strength, and determination it takes to persevere, so advocating for young people was – and remains – a natural fit. Her next job after college was with the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, where she was again able to use her voice, resources, and know-how to craft workplace reform policies for custodial employees and advocate a way to a better life.
As I spoke to Natali, I saw a clear theme and strategy emerge. Natali uses her life experience to make her community better and she understands the issues because she has been there herself.
Her mantra is “We-do-not-take-no-for-an-answer.”
In case you missed the connection, her first job was helping Dreamers, her second was helping cleaners. Natali knows there are many smart people from all walks of life who can achieve if only someone ensures an equitable playing field. As someone who chartered a path to a brighter future, she generously shares her knowledge and works to effect meaningful change that will pave the way for others.
Opening up a world of possibilities to show young people they have a choice and a voice is definitely her mission and her jam. Natali understands well-funded schools and jobs with fair wages and benefits are formulas for success most voters will support. Her niche is organizing and advocating, and she appeals to both moderate and liberal Democrats as well as some Republicans because she understands economics, and she knows when people have access to good jobs, quality health care, and a clean environment, everyone thrives. You could see her organizing skills in action when she interviewed members of the Wheaton, Aspen Hill, and Veirs Mill communities for testimony on housing, transportation, and environmental issues. Natali knew people could not leave work to testify so she went to the people.
Natali rarely rests, so I couldn’t help but ask her: When do you sleep? She made clear it is a balancing act, but she also said she has a great husband and life partner, Angel Gonzalez, a former Marine and engineer. Together, they are raising two beautiful children, Tessa and Lucca, who attend Montgomery County public schools. Balancing family, career, and public service was a monumental challenge in 2020. Natali runs her own consulting business, she is the vice-chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board and Commissioner of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, her mom got sick and unfortunately needed hospice care, and Natali’s children needed to be homeschooled due to Covid.
All of this made Natali hyper-aware of the needs of her neighbors and the resources that are available as well as those that are lacking. Natali has lived in District 4 since 1999 and knows intimately the needs of her community. She is not afraid to go out into the community and discuss issues that affect everyone, including affordable housing; job creation; safe, walkable neighborhoods; climate change; and climate justice. She wants Montgomery County to ensure all residents, regardless of zip code, have a clean environment, quality, affordable housing, and good schools.
In 2020 Natali experienced some very tough personal challenges and loss, but she persevered. She serves on the board of Crittenton, where she helps young women and girls succeed. She led efforts to update county master plans, and she actively opposed the proposed expansion of the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County. Even when life was hardest for her, Natali continued pitching in to make it better for her entire community.
If you are looking to support a candidate who is mentally tough, understands budgeting, is a stalwart change agent, and a doer who will work tirelessly for the citizens of Montgomery County, Natali is your candidate.
Remember: Early money helps strong women get elected!