More than a year from the 2018 primary election, candidates for County offices are heading in to a new territory of publicly-financed campaigns,
In 2014, the County Council passed a law to publicly finance County elections in hopes to counter the impact of campaign donations from large businesses and political action committees.
Montgomery County is the first county in the state to have publicly-financed elections, meaning the new funding system for candidates is untested.
“It leads some people running for office to look more to grassroots and small donations,” said Ed Amatetti, a Republican candidate for County Council District-2 on the new campaign finance system.
The bill is designed to encourage candidates to seek small donations from the public rather than large donations from corporations and PACs by having County tax dollars match small donations to candidates.
Candidates for County Executive will receive $6 for every dollar of the first $50 qualifying contributions, $4 for each dollar for the second $50 and $2 for every dollar after that up to the maximum contribution.
County Council candidates will receive $4 for every dollar of the first $50 qualifying contribution, $3 for every dollar for the second $50 and $2 for every remaining dollar up to the maximum contribution.
All contributions must be between $5 and $150 and be from County residents in order to qualify.
But while the public campaign finance system was set up to help candidates without name recognition who have not held public office and may not be able to raise large donations from large PACs and businesses, he said he is unsure if the new campaign finance system is a benefit to him.
“The jury is kind of out,” Amatetti said.
So far 12 people have filed their intent to qualify for public campaign contributions including Council members Nancy Navarro (D-4), Hans Riemer (D-at large), George Leventhal (D-at large), and Marc Elrich (D-at large).
Elrich and Leventhal cannot run for re-election in 2018, as both will be subjected to a new County charter amendment limiting Council terms to three. Elrich has declared his candidacy for County Executive, while Leventhal said he has not made a decision yet whether to run for County Executive.
Local political activist and lawyer Robin Ficker has praised the new campaign finance system. Ficker, who was one of the first candidates to announce his candidacy for County Executive, has made the new public campaign finance system one of his main pitches to prospective voters.
“I don't think they ever anticipated there would ever be a challenge from someone like me; they anticipated this was a one-party county,” said Ficker, a Republican candidate for County Executive, on the all-Democratic Council’s decision to pass campaign finance in 2014.
Richard Gottfried, a Democratic candidate for County Council at-large said the public campaign finance system makes candidates raise funds from their constituents in small quantities.
“I believe a public finance is the only way to go,” Gottfried said.
Gottfried, who previously ran for Rockville City Council, said the County public campaign is similar to his fundraising efforts in his previous go at public office, by focusing on small donations. Gottfried said there is more special interest money from PACs, corporations and unions in County elections that do not exist in Rockville municipal elections and the public campaign finances system lessens the impact of big money.
“There really is not a difference,” Gottfried said on running for County office versus Rockville city office.
In this year’s budget, the County Executive proposed $10 million for the public campaign fund, but since 2018 will be the first year the law goes into effect, there is uncertainty about whether it will be enough.
Riemer, who said he is running for re-election for his at-large seat, said there is a lot of uncertainty with the new law.
“We’re not making it up as we go, but a lot of the rules we are operating under are being given to us in real time,” Riemer said.