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Pennsylvania’s third largest county could get an all-new slate of officials leading its highest office.
Three seats are at stake in the race for the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. As the bluest county surrounding Philadelphia, the Democrats have maintained majority-control of the board in recent years. However, a couple of departures led to a crowded primary field that left four candidates standing.
Democratic Commissioner Jamila Winder is the closest to a traditional incumbent that voters will have. The recently appointed commissioner is running alongside Neil Makhija on the Democratic ticket. Republicans have tapped Thomas DiBello and Liz Ferry as challengers.
As county commissioners, the winning candidates would be faced with addressing a handful of issues such as housing affordability and homelessness while also being responsible for a $500 million budget and the county board of elections.
Bio and experience
The Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas appointed the lifelong East Norriton Township resident to the Board of Commissioners in February to fill the void left by now-Pennsylvania Secretary of Human Services Dr. Val Arkoosh.
Prior to her appointment, Winder already had a career in public service. She served on the East Norriton Township Board of Supervisors from 2020 to 2023 as well as the Norristown Area School Board from 2017 to 2020. She also has experience in the private sector.
“Professionally I have been working in the private sector for more than two decades. I really have established a pretty successful career in higher education education technology with emphasis on workforce development,” Winder said.
Winder has also served as a board member for Women in Transition, an organization dedicated to helping survivors of domestic violence and substance abuse.
Winder is the first Black woman to serve on the county Board of Commissioners as well as the East Norriton Board of Supervisors.
Her knack for breaking down barriers has given her a new experience, she said.
“I’ve been really, really fortunate both professionally and politically to avail myself and be in rooms where I was oftentimes the only one and so, what I’m most proud of is that I’ve had an opportunity to be the first so many times,” Winder said.
She said being the first has granted her the responsibility of modeling leadership for those who follow in her path.
According to Winder, she’s your average Montgomery County resident: she’s a wife, a mother, and a daughter taking care of two disabled parents, all while paying student loans.
“But what I’m most proud of as I’ve grown and evolved both politically and professionally is that I’ve never lost sight of where I come from and who I represent and so this transition to commissioner has really meant that really ensuring that I stay true to the people that I’m serving and staying grounded in those lived experiences that I can bring to the commissioner’s office, and I think that perspective and that point of view is new as well as needed,” Winder said.
Reason for running
From homelessness and addiction to challenges with mental health and housing affordability, Winder said Montgomery County’s most vulnerable people are being burdened with heavy challenges.
“My lived experiences over four decades will really lend itself well to the moment that we’re in, whether it’s addressing housing affordability or coming up with new streams of revenue to be able to deliver more services in the county, whether it’s just improving operational efficiencies and addressing talent or the brain drain that exists in Montgomery County, or just coming up with ways to support our seniors that have given so much to our communities,” she said.
She said she wants to be an inspiration for young girls and women. To her, the call of public service comes down to one question:
“Why not step up and give your time and your talents to those that need me?”
Bio and experience
If elected, the 37-year-old educator would be one of the youngest commissioners in the county’s history. In his day job, Makhija has years of experience as a practicing attorney and policy advisor.
“I worked on the opioid litigation to hold Purdue Pharmaceutical and other companies accountable for fueling the opioid crisis and addicting a generation of people — honestly across generations,” he said.
He currently works as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and as president of Indian American Impact, a national civics organization.
“Given the recent events in politics where our democracy itself is under threat, I felt it was incredibly important to have people who understand how to protect the right to vote in a local office that administers elections,” Makhija said.
It was through his role with Impact that Makhija completed the work that he is proudest of.
“As leader of national civil rights and civics organization, I helped double turnout for my community in the 2020 and 2022 elections and it was something that nobody had ever seen before,” Makhija said. “We saw a 91% increase in voting in our community that used to be among the lowest turnout and are now among the highest and I was one of 13 people to advise the president on voting rights in 2021.”
During his time as a lawyer, he worked on “one of the first cases” representing children against an e-cigarette manufacturer that targeted kids online via influencers and social media marketing.
He said he brought the issue to a member of Congress who conducted a hearing.
“Within weeks of that hearing the president at the time … agreed that [companies] had to take the flavored products off the shelves,” Makhija said.
Reason for running
Makhija said it is important that the county Board of Commissioners address homelessness and housing affordability right away. He added that it is “almost impossible” for working-class families to buy a home.
When thinking about his four-month-old son, his priority shifts to also addressing climate change.
“He was born on the hottest recorded week in the history of the planet, I believe, in July,” Makhija said. “We at all levels of government need to think about how we’re going to address the climate crisis and that’s not just mitigation and reducing emissions, but it’s also adaptation, being able to respond to floods and severe weather and being able to make sure that people are safe. For example when you had a flood in Bridgeport that wiped out hundreds of units of affordable housing, how do we as a community respond to that effectively.”
Ultimately protecting democracy from unprecedented threats to the election process is what inspired Makhija to run.
“And so I see it as one of my responsibilities to really seek to engage and inspire every community and particularly those communities that have not had a seat at the table,” Makhija said.