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Mount Rainier suddenly has a mayoral race featuring Ward 1 City Councilor Celina Benitez facing off against Ward 2 City Councilor Scott Cecil. Benitez was the only candidate to file to run for city’s top seat before official candidate registration was closed in late March, and was all-but guaranteed to become the first Hispanic Mayor of Mount Rainier, succeeding long-time Mayor Malinda Miles who said she would not be seeking another term.
But in an email sent shortly after 10 p.m. April 12, 2021, Cecil announced a write-in campaign challenging Benitez. While write-in campaigns are typically long-shot affairs launched by political outsiders, Cecil’s experience on Council and his local name recognition make this a more serious consideration.
Benitez was first elected to Mount Rainier City Council in 2017 to fill a vacancy left by the resignation of former City Councilor Tracy Hadden Loh. She won again two years later. Both times, she ran against Charnette Robinson. A resident of Mount Rainier since 2014, a Salvadoran immigrant and a naturalized citizen, Benitez said she first ran for City Council to give the city’s Spanish-speaking population a voice inside City Hall. Over the past year, she has been heavily involved in food distribution drives and promoting Census efforts in the city. In her campaign materials, she highlighted her support of the city’s economic development initiatives, and her support of former Chief of Police Anthony Morgan’s efforts to diversity the city police department.
“I want to continue the work of bringing the City of Mount Rainier into the 21th century by implementing best practices in the city’s operations, and working to attract quality businesses to the area while retaining our social-economically and diverse community,” reads Benitez’s introductory statement on her website.
Cecil, a nonprofit lobbyist and consultant who focuses on drug police and police issues, was first elected to Mount Rainier City Council in 2019, running unopposed to replace former City Councilor Shivali Shah. In his campaign, he argued the city’s political discourse leans too-heavily toward homeowner concerns to the detriment of renters and said he wanted to be a voice for tenants in the city’s policymaking decisions. His goal, he said during the 2019 Mount Rainier candidate debate, is to elevate the political discourse in Mount Rainier. Since his election, Cecil has established himself as Mount Rainier Council’s resident activist, to mixed reception on City Council. His proposal to change the way city police handle pit bulls was approved unanimously. He controversially threatened to withhold his vote on the city’s budget if audits were not up-to-date. His proposal to cap the city’s police budget fell flat.
Benitez’s campaign website splits her platform into three broad areas – strengthening the community, revitalizing the economy, and improving city services. Among her community initiatives, she wants the city to hire a staff position focused on community events and youth and senior outreach, plan a new library, and translate city communications into more than just English and Spanish. On her economic initiatives, Benitez said she wants to attract major commercial development projects to the city.
But until now, Benitez has not had to differentiate herself from a competitor in her mayoral campaign materials. Cecil, with the luxury of entering the race at a time of his choosing, used his introductory announcement to draw sharp contrasts in their approach to policy and to question Benitez’s judgement in light of recent scandals. In addition to highlighting his professional experience, Cecil criticized Benitez for not supporting his calls to extend the contract of interim City Manager Latasha Gatling, whose contract ends at the end of the month with no replacement lined up. Cecil criticized Benitez for also voting to give a pay raise to former city manager Miranda Braatz shortly before he took office.
“Her tenure and her departure caused a lot of problems for the City, some of which the City still continues to deal with to this day,” said Cecil. “I have a clear record when it comes to City Manager oversight and management. And, so do my colleagues. I ask that you consider this when you cast your votes.”
Cecil also noted he was the only City Council member to call for an investigation into thefts of documents from city hall in 2019, as well as his work to push Hyattsville to release video from the shooting of Leonard Shand.
Mount Rainier’s election concludes May 3.
Also running is Jarrett Stoltzfus, who is running unopposed for one of the city’s Ward Two seats, and incumbent City Councilor Luke Chesek, who is running unopposed to retain his Ward One seat.