The new public finance laws in Montgomery County are leading to a war of words between two current council members running for County Executive.
Marc Elrich, (D-At-Large) is using public financing and claims Roger Berliner (D-1), who isn’t using public financing, is part of the problem with politics.
In the first required finance report of the 2018 campaign season, Berliner reports that real estate development businesses, and individuals associated with those firms, contributed approximately $266,000 - nearly half - of the funds his campaign raised from Jan. 10, 2017 to Jan. 10, 2018, according to the State Board of Elections.
These groups include local residential and commercial real estate developers, building contractors and financial investment firms associated with real estate.
“The business community is obviously a significant stakeholder in our county, and I’m proud to have the business community’s support,” Berliner said. “I’m proud that the business community believes that I am the best candidate to lead our county to a more prosperous future.”
“This is why we need public financing,” Elrich said. “The whole point behind public financing is to take special interests out of elections like this. In Montgomery County there’s never been a bigger special interest than real estate development. There is no rival to the real estate development industry. What they look for is people who will minimize the impact on them of the cost of doing business in Montgomery County. Clearly Roger is heavily dependent on them for money.”
While Montgomery County’s new public campaign financing system aims to level the playing field for candidates who rely on small-dollar donations, reports filed with the State Board of Elections show large contributions from wealthy individuals and entities with business in the county still give candidates who’ve opted out of the system a significant advantage by allowing them to keep pace with matching funds.
Berliner, who represents Bethesda, Chevy-Chase, Darnestown, Dickerson, Poolesville and Potomac on the Council, defended his record. “I’m proud of my record on development,” he said.
“I’m proud I fought development where it didn’t belong, like Ten Mile Creek [an environmentally sensitive watershed area], and I’m proud I supported it where it belongs where I live in White Flint.”
While his relationship with the business and development communities has helped Berliner maintain a significant fundraising advantage over his opponents, he pointed out that those communities are not the only ones to support him, and explained that there are many groups who trust him and support his campaign, but the business community happens to have the money with which to express that trust.
“Business people typically have more dollars than taxicab drivers, and I’m grateful to have their support,” he said. “The business community sees me as a reasonable person, a pragmatic person, someone they can trust to deal straight with and to lead us to a more prosperous future. Nothing is more important to our county’s future than becoming prosperous.”
What the campaign finance reports don’t show, Berliner said, is that his campaign has the support not just of the business and development communities, but of a broad spectrum of Montgomery County stakeholders, including the president of the Friendship Heights Citizen Coordinating Committee, Chevy Chase elected officials and neighborhood activists throughout the county, along with environmentalists and taxicab drivers.
“[T]he support I have in this campaign is really the biggest tent, if you will, in this race, and that’s what sets me apart.”
The new system, created through legislation by the County Council in 2014, provides candidates for County Executive with up to $750,000 in matching funds from an $11 million fund established by the Council. To qualify for matching funds candidates must forego contributions from Political Action Committees, labor unions, and other state and local political groups while raising $40,000 in small donations ranging from $5 to $150 from at least 500 people. Candidates who exhaust the public funds available to them may continue to raise money after reaching the $750,000 public financing cap.
Elrich – who reported $314,000 cash on hand – requested $40,215 from the County to match $53,701 he raised last year, has received $316,146.00 in matching funds so far. George Leventhal’s campaign – which has received $279,654 in matching funds so far - reported having $179,091 on hand, and requested $26,114 to match the $26,788 in small donations raised last year.
Republican Robin Ficker raised $22,686 last year, but he cannot make use of the public campaign financing system for the primary election unless he faces a Republican opponent. Ficker, who is using small dollar contributions to fund his campaign, would be able to use those funds in the general election when he faces a Democratic opponent.
Rose Krasnow – a former Rockville Mayor who entered the race last November – has not yet filed any campaign finance reports.
Early voting for the primary election – which is scheduled for Tuesday, June 26 begins on Thursday, June 14.
Six Democrats and one Republican are running to replace outgoing County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who term limits imposed after a 2016 referendum bar from running for a fourth term.
The Democratic candidates include three current members of the Montgomery County Council, Berliner, Elrich and George Leventhal (D-At Large). Also running as Democrats are former Montgomery County Planning Board Deputy Director Rose Krasnow, House of Delegates Majority Leader William “Bill” Frick, and healthcare business executive David Blair. The sole Republican in the race is local attorney, activist, and perennial candidate Robin Ficker.
In 2016, Ficker – who served in the House of Delegates from 1979 to 1983 and has unsuccessfully run for office more than a dozen times since 1972 – led the effort to impose term limits on County-level officeholders. While Ficker said his push for a term limit law had no connection with a desire to run for office once more and quipped that the only thing he’d run for if the term limits ballot initiative passed was “cover,” he later filed papers to run for County Executive as a Republican.
Of the seven candidates, only three – Berliner, Blair, and Frick – are not making use of the County’s public financing system, which was approved by the Council in 2014 and is making its debut in the 2018 election.
In reports filed with the Maryland Board of Elections, Frick, whose campaign reported $135,753 on hand at the end of last year’s reporting period, disclosed that during the last year his campaign raised $190,485, of which approximately $60,000 came from Washington, D.C.-based law firms. The donations, however, may have been made not to Frick’s campaign for County Executive, but to his prior campaign to replace outgoing 6th Congressional District Rep. John Delaney (D), who is vacating the seat to run for President in 2020. Campaign finance laws allow candidates to repurpose funds raised while running for a different office.
Reports from Blair’s campaign indicate $290,000 of the $499,969 his campaign raised last year came from loans made by Blair to himself, as well as donations from Blair’s family, with the rest coming from wealthy donors and figures in the healthcare, entertainment, construction and financial industries.