In the race for the at-large seats on the Montgomery County Council, the County’s new public campaign financing system appears to be fulfilling its promise of eliminating the financial advantage of incumbency as most of the top fundraisers in the race are using the new system, according to the year’s first round of campaign finance disclosures.
Thirty-four candidates: 30 Democrats, three Republicans, and one member of the Green Party – are vying for three open at-large seats on the nine-member Council this year. Twenty-two of those new candidates have signed up for public financing, as well as incumbent Hans Riemer, who is running for re-election after his second term as an at-large Council member.
The primary election for all candidates in the race is Tuesday, June 26.
Last week candidates in the race filed state-required campaign finance reports for the first time in the primary election.
A candidate’s ability to raise and manage money, and in the case of public financing, reach enough voters to qualify for matching funds, is seen as a barometer for which of the 30 Democrats will have enough support to stay in the race, which is crowded enough to raise questions as to how the Democratic Party will manage so many candidates, particularly with regard to arranging debates.
Because incumbents are able to develop relationships with donors and other political figures, incumbency is seen as a significant fundraising advantage.
The public campaign financing law, however, was meant to change all that when it became law in 2014 with the intention of removing special interest money from elections, giving challengers equal chance compared with incumbents, and giving more power to individual voters. Candidates who do not receive contributions from PACs, corporations, labor organizations or state or local political committees, and who qualify for public financing, may access the $11 million account established by the County to fund both the 2018 primary and general elections.
In order to qualify for public financing in the County Council at-large election, a candidate must raise $20,000 in 250 qualifying contributions that range from $5 to $150, the maximum amount. Candidates receive $4 in matching funds for each of the first $50 raised, $3 for each of the second $50 raised and $2 for each dollar of the remaining contribution.
Qualified at-large candidates participating in the County's public campaign finance program can receive up to $250,000 in matching funds for both the primary and general elections.
The leading fundraiser among the Democratic candidates is four-term House Delegate Charles Barkley (D-39). Barkley, who is using traditional campaign financing, has approximately $230,000 in his campaign coffers, although he started off 2017 with about $200,000 in the bank.
Barkley said he opted for traditional financing in this race because he already had money in his campaign account from being in office for the last 20 years.
“Public financing is good, it gives everybody a golden opportunity if they want to run for office,” Barkley said. “At the same time, public financing is taxpayer money, so if I don’t have to spend taxpayer money then I think that’s good.”
The next five top fundraisers are all using the County’s new public campaign financing program.
Coming in at second is the incumbent Council member Riemer, who has $158,900 in his campaign account. In 2017, he raised $127,821 in matching campaign funds.
Bill Conway, Hoan Dang, Evan Glass and Chris Wilhelm aren’t far behind. Each raised over $100,000 in 2017. Conway reported $115,230 in his campaign account with another $39,363 in additional matching funds pending. Dang has $110,674 in his account, Glass has $128,156 with another $15,395 pending, and Wilhelm has $120,075 with another $3,000 pending.
Glass said he has campaigned in 35 meet-and-greets from Takoma Park to Potomac and Gaithersburg to Cloverly.
“I am proud of the early support our campaign is receiving from residents all across Montgomery County,” Glass said. “I am very grateful for the $5 and $10 donations I’ve received from individuals who have never engaged in the political process before. My grassroots campaign is dedicated to ensuring that their voices are heard.”
Ashwani Jain, a candidate using traditional financing like Barkley, is the seventh highest fundraiser. Jain reports having $97,837 in available campaign cash. He raised $132,878 in 2017. However, like public funding candidates, Jain said he is not taking money from PACs or corporations.
“I’m proud to announce that my campaign has raised $132,878.17 from 541 individual contributors,” Jain stated in a press release. “I am humbled to receive the support of over 550 volunteers and the encouragement of my fellow residents in Montgomery County – the county where I was born and raised.”
Closely following the top seven fundraisers are five additional candidates who are all using public financing:
Gabe Alboronoz, Shruti Bhatnagar – the only female candidate in range of being a top fundraiser – Seth Grimes, Will Jawando and Mohammad Siddique are all waiting for official approval from the State Board of Elections. Once approved, their campaigns will receive an influx of matching funds comparable to those of the top tier fundraisers.
Marilyn Balcombe, president of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, is using traditional fundraising. She reported raising $42,671 in 2017.
Danielle Meitiv, aka “Free-range Mom,” who is known for publicly tussling with County law enforcement after allowing her two young children to walk home unaccompanied from two local parks, said she has raised the minimum amount of $20,000 needed to qualify, but is waiting until February to request matching funds. She said she would like to ensure that all submitted contributions meet the threshold for qualification.
Contributions may only come from County residents and each contribution must be signed by the contributor as a form of verification. All contributions are verified by the state election board.
The 20 remaining candidates in the at-large race have either fallen short of raising the necessary $20,000 in contributions by the first filing deadline, have raised little cash or are in debt.
Three Republicans who entered the race after the deadline have not expressed how they will raise money for their campaigns.
Candidates using public financing have until May 12 to raise money.
UPDATE: The original version of this story, first published on Jan. 29, stated County Council At-Large candidate Ashwani Jain, a traditional funding candidate, would not accept campaign contributions from PACs or corporations during the election, according to statements made by the candidate during an interview. However, on Feb. 5, the Jain campaign contacted the Sentinel to say Jain is accepting contributions from "progressive" PACs. According to the Jain Campaign, the Jain Campaign accepted a $1,000 PAC contribution on Jan. 22 from Opportunity First, a super PAC run by former Obama administration official, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
The Jain Campaign provided the following statement regarding this update: "From the beginning, the campaign was open to receiving donations from progressive and/or labor PACs but not from corporations or developers."