Conduit Street had the pleasure of interviewing Frederick County Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer, who was recently installed as MACo’s Treasurer. Learn more about M.C. in the Q&A below.
CS: Thank you for your time in talking a little bit about yourself… our Conduit Street readers will appreciate the insights, I’m sure.
MCKA: Thanks so much for giving me this opportunity to share with you and my colleagues from across the state a little bit about myself. I come from a background of education and advocacy. I graduated with a degree in education, taught school for two years and then found my way to Capitol Hill where I discovered my passion for legislation and advocating for causes I believe in. I worked on Capitol Hill for ten years, starting as a legislative assistant, working my way up to Legislative Director, and then moving on to an advocacy position with a lobbying firm for a national organization.
Later, I chose to stay home and raise my children because lobbying and the long hours it entails while simultaneously trying to raise young children presented a huge challenge. When I added in the length of the commute from Frederick County to Washington, D.C. it seemed like the logical choice to stay home for a while until my children were older. But I jumped into local issues and kept honing my skills advocating for schools and educational issues, and closely following the decisions of local government. For good or for bad, I became a bit of a fixture in the halls of local government and the offices of the Frederick County Board of Education.
CS: Okay, so… it’s cliché, but how about the usual question for people who ended up in public service. How did you find your way to elected office?
MCKA: I think I can blame it on Jan Gardner. (a moment of mutual laughter)
But to be serious, I was a fairly well-known advocate in the community on local school and education issues, and was becoming better known on land use issues, especially as they pertained to school and school capacity. I had been very active on issues in Frederick for many years, since moving to the county more than thirty years ago. I had begun advocating on land, growth and development issues when my children were babies. I had served on my neighborhood HOA, had been on the PTAs at my children’s schools, and had served on the PTA Council of Frederick County for years.
CS: Okay, so involved in the community, plugged in, and then things changed?
MCKA: When Frederick County voted to change to a Charter form of government in 2012, Jan came to me and said she was going to run for County Executive and she needed someone to run for County Council who understood the legislative process and the difference in the legislative as opposed to the administrative or executive branch of government. She was putting together a team and she asked me to be a part of it. And then four years later, again with Jan’s encouragement as well as with the support of a great deal of the community, I ran again and won with an even greater margin.
So essentially, I have been swept into office based on my long record of advocacy for schools, education, the impact of growth on schools and school capacity, and based on my love of teaching people in the community how to advocate for themselves and what they need in order to make their lives better. I love helping people learn how to advocate for themselves.
CS: Most people find it to be a really big transition from working in the public sector (in almost any capacity) to serving in elected office. What was the biggest transition for you?
MCKA: The biggest transition for me was that I no longer get to pick and choose which events I will attend and cover, which issues I will choose to get involved in, and which groups I can choose to work with to assist them or not depending on my time. Now, I need to be involved everywhere, I need to be at all of the events, I need to attend almost everything. I can’t sit on the sidelines because I am tired, or because I have too much else on my plate…people elected me to be their voice, to be their advocate when they are the ones who are too tired, or have too much on their plates, or simply don’t know how to speak out for what they need. That is my job now and I don’t have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines or taking a pass, because someone, somewhere is counting on me. I take that responsibility very seriously.
CS: Sometimes our newly elected officials call it the “supermarket effect,” where serving in local government has you so close to the people who elected you that you literally see them all the time. Is Frederick County still “small” enough that you feel this in your district?
MCKA: Absolutely and this is the one aspect of the job that I just love. I love being able to connect with people where they are; when we are just going about our daily activities as normal people – picking up a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. I love the fact that people feel comfortable approaching me as I’m picking out apples or potatoes and talking to me about a problem they are having or something they need help with, or even letting me know that they disagree with some position I have taken on an issue or on a vote I have made. I always want people to feel they can talk to me about anything, and I never want them to feel intimidated or stand-offish simply because I am an elected official. I am just like them, I have problems, concerns, dreams and goals just like they do…I just get to have a wooden gavel that I bang to start and stop meetings and I have a lot more to read and comprehend in order to prepare for meetings than probably many of them. But at the end of the day, we are all very much the same.
CS: Another question about Frederick County. It’s just about as “purple” as they come… in the county-wide races for at-large council seats, the general election was within a couple percentage points for both seats. What does that mean for you and your colleagues on the Council, as you manage issues that aren’t all that partisan but you do still have to get things done?
MCKA: Frederick County is still quite purple, particularly if you look at the breakout of the registered voters. We may have slightly more Democrats than Republicans now than we had in 2018, the last time I ran for office, but we also have quite a few unaffiliated or independent voters who can absolutely impact the results of the elections depending on the person running. And in local government, the issues are less about party affiliation and more about making sure the expected services are provided in a predictable, reliable and comprehensive manner. It makes no difference whether there is an R or a D after your name when you are in elected office if the roads are not cleared efficiently and effectively after it snows, or if the schools and roads are all overcrowded and there are no local jobs to be found. It is always a balancing act, especially at the local government level, and party affiliation doesn’t really come into play.
I am extremely proud of the fact that on this current FC Council, most of our votes have been 7/0 and even when the votes are not unanimous, we split in many different ways, but usually not by party. I have made a concerted effort as the President of the Council to ensure collaboration between all the Council Members and I work extremely hard to build consensus whenever and wherever possible instead of simply relying on a bare majority to get things done.
There are sometimes those who don’t agree with that philosophy, and who think that just pushing legislation through with a bare majority is ok. However, I have found that working collaboratively to build consensus, and sometimes having to compromise to win more support for a bill, results in a better product (bill) and more support throughout the community for what we are trying to do. Plus, with more support in the community, it makes it more challenging for the laws to be changed after we leave office, so the change is more permanent.
CS: Land use has been one of those issues where Frederick County, like many across our state, has faced a lot of pressure. What’s your perspective on those issues?
MCKA: Land use is a hot button topic that is not always well understood. It is possible to have development and growth that is well-planned, well-thought out and deliberate. But that requires a great deal of collaboration, consensus building and a lot of on-going meaningful two-way communication. And this requires a high level of mutual respect and a willingness to work together and at times even compromise one’s positions a bit for the good of the whole. It also requires that the people involved have a reputation of being willing to listen and listen without prejudice and that they are willing to work together and willing to compromise in order to achieve an end result that benefits everyone.
Compromise is not a dirty word and working together to achieve a goal is something we teach our children in school but as adults we seem to forget how to do. In land use issues especially, it is important to listen and communicate and to be open to hearing all sides of an issue before taking a position.
CS: Serving as the Chair of MACo’s Land Use Subcommittee, then, probably requires you to leave some of the specifics behind, even as you draw on your own familiarity. Any reflections on being a leader in MACo’s policy process, and our county voice in Annapolis?
MCKA: MACo seems to be a natural fit for me. On the MACo Legislative Committee, we work to find common ground around the issues, we then build on that ground to come to a consensus. The collaboration and effective team building is something I have always found to be the best way to achieve a desired end result. Since I have always loved searching out a legislative solution to a problem, the way that MACo operates is almost second nature to me.
Working collaboratively with other county leaders to come up with positions that will be acceptable to all is something that I truly love. We all come to the table with so much that is similar, it’s all about finding those similarities and then building upon them until we have found a compromise solution and then planning an advocacy campaign to effectively move that solution forward.
CS: In the years ahead, assuming your county colleagues support your nomination into MACo leadership, you’ll do even more of that – taking the statewide view, in addition to your own district and county. Any thoughts about taking on that role?
MCKA: As I have stated, I love finding the commonalities among people and then building on those to find solutions to problems. I thrive on working together to find innovative ways to move solutions to a particular problem forward. While it will require some additional time and work, I have never shied away from giving more of myself when I thought it would benefit the efforts of the whole group. I believe my experience in my own county, where as we discussed previously, we are still very purple, has prepared me for working across not just party lines, but also across political differences to find solutions and I am excited and looking forward to the challenge.
CS: So, other than preparing for and conducting Council meetings… what might we find you doing? Hobbies, etc?
MCKA: I do the normal things – garden, read, needlework. It depends on what else is happening in my life. If I am angry or extremely stressed, I have been known to re-landscape entire sections of my yard, or cut down very large bushes or even trees with just a handsaw. My husband’s joke is that if I am upset, it’s probably best not to leave the power equipment around. My happy place is at the beach…nothing makes me happier or calms me faster than listening to the waves crashing on the shore and breathing in the salty air. I could walk on the beach for miles and miles, for hours at a time and I have. I am basically an outside person; I need sunshine and fresh air to keep myself in balance. And I love reading about historical events and political people….but my secret passion is murder mysteries. I have bookcases filled with books about murder and mayhem. I’m not sure what that says about me but that’s part of who I am.
CS: M.C. is a fairly unusual initials-as-a-name combination, unless you’re also a rap performer. But it seems like you’re decidedly “M.C.” to everyone, rather than the names it presumably stands for. How did that become your name of choice?
MCKA: Trust me, no one wants to hear me try and rap. No, my name, M.C. was given to me in college because my real name was just too long. If you are in a hurry, no one wants to stop and call out “Mary Catherine” every time they want to get your attention. So my roommate started calling me M.C. and it just stuck. I became M.C. and I have remained M.C. ever since. The only people who ever called me Mary Catherine after college were family and people who knew me from before college, and now even my family all call me M.C. But no, rapping or even singing is not my forte in any way.
CS: What else would our readers want to know about you, as a person and a leader? The floor is yours!
MCKA: People probably should know that I am a bit of a smart aleck and can be very sarcastic at times…well most times. I have three children, all grown and out on their own, a crazy dog that my daughter had to adopt as a rescue because no one else wanted him (should have been a clue!) and he had already been adopted and brought back twice (should have been a bigger clue!!) and he ended up with me because he also was too high-maintenance for her to handle.
I’m the middle child in a family of five children, which apparently means I always try to fix things and find solutions to problems, which has been a huge benefit as an elected official. Also, as a middle child, I got very good at listening to others and keeping my opinions to myself, and letting others take credit, as long as the problem was resolved. When I first started working on Capitol Hill, I was learned that you can get a lot more accomplished as long as you don’t care who gets the credit. I have found that to be very, very true.
CS: Thanks so much, this was really interesting!
MCKA: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.