Cherri Branson has moved around a lot in her life: from rural West Virginia to Southeast Washington, D.C., then New York for college, Indiana for law school and Atlanta. She came to Montgomery County for a career as a congressional legislative aide on Capitol Hill.
Now, Branson (D) of Silver Spring has moved into a small office on the sixth floor of the Stella Werner Council Office Building in Rockville. It will be a 10-month stay as the Montgomery County Council representative from District 5, filling the spot left by the resignation of former Councilwoman Valerie Ervin.
Branson, 54, took her seat on Jan. 28. She has agreed not to run for a full term in this year’s election.
She said she knew she would face a rush of information as she got up to speed on a variety of issues, but the pace has been more hectic than she expected.
After nearly a quarter-century on Capitol Hill — including her most recent job as Chief Counsel for Oversight to the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee — Branson is used to absorbing a lot of information quickly.
And, she said, after coming from Congress, where things have largely ground to a halt in recent years amid partisan gridlock, it’s nice to get back to a busy schedule.
“The pace part of [the council] is not necessarily different,” she said.
It’s largely the scope of what she’ll be working on that has changed.
The County Council thinks about how to help the county’s school system, while Congress thinks about education policy generally, Branson said.
Part of Branson’s transition will include figuring out her position on both the issues that affect her constituents in District 5 and those that affect county residents in general.
Speaking in her office Wednesday, Branson said she would need to some time to think through some of the excellent testimony the council heard Tuesday night at a hearing on plans for development in the White Oak area.
She’s also taking time to consider her position on development in Clarksburg and issues surrounding the Ten Mile Creek watershed.
“I personally need more information,” Branson said.
She’s also heard from her new constituents about the need to help resolve transportation issues in the district, which includes Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Burtonsville.
Branson said she’s aware of the need to fix transportation in Montgomery, but warned that there’s no “magic bullet” to solve the problems.
Branson’s transition will be aided by Chief of Staff Sonya Healy and several other staff members who stayed on after Ervin resigned Jan. 3 to become the chief executive of a New York-based nonprofit group.
Healy said the switch was easier because the council was in recess for much of the time between Ervin’s resignation and Branson’s appointment.
She said the break gave her and other staffers a chance to focus on maintaining communication with residents.
Healy praised Council President Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown for making sure Ervin’s staff was taken care of and for initiating an open and fair process to find her replacement.
Branson was one of 18 candidates who applied to fill the remainder of the term. The council interviewed the finalists in public. Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring said she and other council members are available to help Branson with anything she needs.
Navarro understands what Branson is dealing with, having come to the council in a special election in 2009 before winning her first full term in 2010.
She said serving more than four years on the county’s Board of Education helped her understand legislative process, but nothing prepares you for the onslaught of issues the council has to deal with.
A new member has to rely heavily on staff and colleagues and be able to put in extra time to review the history of issues and other finer points of policy, Navarro said.
Branson was born in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in 1959, but moved to Washington with her mother, Marie Branson, who got a job as a teacher.
Although they lived in Southeast Washington, Branson got permission to attend elementary and junior high school in Georgetown.
Going to school with the children of senators, diplomats and Washington’s elite helped her be comfortable in a variety of situations.
“I had to learn quickly how to still be me wherever I was,” she said.
She attended Washington’s Eastern High School for a year before transferring to the now-defunct Immaculate Conception Academy in the District.
Then it was off to New York’s Vassar College, where her time was spent in class and working with a group dedicated to bringing more racial and economic diversity to the school.
She was also active in an anti-apartheid group on campus, once participating in the takeover of a campus administrative building to protest a structure of racial segregation under the regime in South Africa.
“I kept busy,” Branson said Wednesday.
After college, she came back to Washington and worked for the district government, running a summer youth employment program and working as a management analyst while she earned money for law school.
She was inspired by the work of Thurgood Marshall and others who showed the ability of the law to make substantive changes in people’s lives.
“I wanted to be a lawyer all my life,” Branson said.
She got a law degree from Indiana University’s law school in 1985, after which she taught for two years at Howard University Law School. She got a degree in litigation from Atlanta’s Emory University School of Law in 1988.
In Atlanta, she worked as both a prosecutor and a public defender, seeing the legal system from both sides of the courtroom.
Then Branson came back to Washington, where she spent 23 years as a Capitol Hill staffer, along with about one year as a political appointee in Bill Clinton’s Labor Department.
She settled in Silver Spring, where she lives with her husband, Donald, and son Avery, 16. Her mother is one of her new constituents.
While she’s still getting caught up on many issues she’ll be asked to address during her term, working in a group such as the council is similar in many ways. whether at the federal or local level, she said.
“A legislative branch is a legislative branch,” she said.