By Glynis Kazanjian
Several candidates who voted to support public campaign financing in local elections are opting not to use the funding mechanism for their own campaigns, as they run for local office in Montgomery County.
Public campaign financing can be used for the first time in 2018 when Montgomery County voters go to the polls to elect a new county executive and a new nine-member County Council.
New term limits and personal decisions have created openings for council and county executive.
At least 36 candidates are currently running for County Council — 20 for the four at-large seats — and four candidates are running for county executive. See MarylandReporter.com’s list.
“The new system has certainly succeeded in encouraging new candidates to run for office, and it may encourage greater voter participation,” said District 5 County Councilmember Tom Hucker, D, who is running for re-election and currently has no opponent. “Under the right circumstances, it’s very attractive. But I’m not eligible for public dollars. None of us are until we have an opponent.”
Needing an opponent to qualify
In order to qualify to receive taxpayer-funded county matching funds, candidates must have an opponent in the primary or general election, but the program is voluntary and no candidate is barred from participating in it.
Any candidate may participate who is willing to abide by the fundraising rules of public financing. The rules bar contributions from any group or organization, including PACs, corporations, labor organizations, state or local political committees; they cap individual contributions at $150.
The law matching small campaign contributions with taxpayer dollars is intended to give voters a stronger voice in local elections by keeping big money and special interest money out of politics. It was intended to encourage more people to run for local office that normally couldn’t compete with incumbents.
Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner, D-1, who is running for county executive and Councilmember Craig Rice, D-2, who is running for re-election, have also decided not to use public financing. So has former Councilmember Cherri Branson who is running at-large. All three voted for the new public finance legislation in 2014.
Berliner has said his campaign would require traditional funding in order to get his name out because he represented a single district, and not the county at-large as have the other two Democrats running, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal.
Up to $750,000 for executive
The county matching fund system awards up to $750,000 for the county executive race to qualified candidates, who first have to raise $40,000. It grants $250,000 for at-large council seats after $20,000 has been raised; and, $125,000 for district seats after raising $10,000.
An $11 million fund was finalized this year to cover the matching funds.
Del. Charles Barkley, D, who supported state legislation to establish public financing for delegates, will also pass on public financing in his race for an at-large seat.
“My concern is that we are using everybody’s tax money to use it,” Barkley said. “In the past when we’ve had [state] public financing, usually there was a little check-off in the income tax [box] and we voluntarily gave money to it. Since I had money in my [campaign] account, it seems to me I should use that instead of taxpayer money if I don’t have to.”
Gov. Larry Hogan used state public financing to win election, and his budget replaced money taken out of the fund that had been used for other purposes.
Peter Fosselman, a former five-term mayor of Kensington who is running in County Council District 1, said he is not using the new public campaign financing system because he thinks taxpayer revenue should be used to fund other programs.
“Last year our property taxes were raised by 8.7%,” Fosselman said. “Then the County Council found $11 million to fund private campaigning. With $11 million we could hire over 100 new teachers or house 550 homeless people. We have so many other priorities.”
No opponent for Navarro but still participating
District 4 Councilmember Nancy Navarro, D, who also voted for the legislation in 2014, currently doesn’t have an opponent, but she will participate in public financing.
“This bill went through the committee I chaired, so obviously I’m very invested in the concept,” Navarro said. “I worked very hard to develop some of the components. For example, making sure we had a bipartisan commission of citizens that could recommend funding levels. I think it’s important to have a program where residents can feel invested and where people don’t feel left out of the process. The bottom line is, if I don’t have an opponent, then I don’t get matching funds.”
Navarro said she has raised approximately $8,000 in small dollar contributions to date.
County Council District 1 candidate Meredith Wellington, D, made a similar decision. While Wellington is not participating in public financing, she has pledged to forego contributions from special interest groups.
“I have made a decision I will not accept contributions from special interests, certainly not from developers in Montgomery County,” said Wellington, who served eight years on the county planning board. “I know a lot about keeping the integrity of the process. I’m very aware of the need for transparency.”
Republican county executive candidate Robin Ficker, who spearheaded the ballot initiative that led to term limits, is also participating in public campaign financing. He thinks it gives individual voters clout.
“Any contribution up to $50 for a county executive candidate is matched 6-to-1 by the county fund, so by giving a check for $50 in essence they’re giving a check for $350.”
This article was updated on 9/6/17 at 10:00 am.