By Glynis Kazanjian
The sole Republican candidate in the Montgomery County executive race may not qualify to receive public financing matching funds by a midnight Tuesday deadline set by the State Board of Elections under the county law.
Attorney Robin Ficker has been raising money to qualify for public campaign financing since February 2017 and was a little over halfway to the required amount as of January, the last filed campaign finance report. He has previously successfully spearheaded two countywide voter referendums, including the recent passage of county term limits.
But as the first county election with a public financing option nears, some parts of the 2014 law are proving difficult for candidates to understand.
For instance, Ficker seemed to believe as recently as Friday that the May 15 deadline didn’t apply to him. (The original May 12 deadline in the law was moved to Tuesday since May 12 was a Saturday.)
“I’ve already applied to be a public financing candidate,” Ficker told MarylandReporter.com Friday morning. “I do not have to submit enough contributions to qualify for the general election on May 15. No [general election] candidate has to. I am not seeking nor can I get qualifying funds for the primary because I don’t have a primary opponent. The law bars me from getting matching funds when I am unopposed…. You need to talk with Jared. That’s not what he says.”
Ficker claimed Jared DeMarinis, director of the State Board of Elections Candidacy and Campaign Finance Division, which administers the new county campaign finance program told him differently. But Ficker did not provide any back-up materials to substantiate his claims.
By Monday afternoon, Ficker was saying he accepted tomorrow’s deadline for all public campaign financing candidates. And, according to Montgomery County Republican Chairman Mark Uncapher, Ficker raised “a lot” of money over the weekend.
When asked if he was going to apply by the midnight deadline, Ficker wasn’t sure.
“We know what the deadline is,” Ficker said. “We’ll have to see. We are not there yet. We have not applied yet. That may change.”
What it takes to qualify
In order to qualify, the law says candidates for county executive must collect 500 qualified contributions of $150 or less, totaling $40,000 in aggregate by May 12 (now May 15) in order to receive up to $750,000 in county-subsidized matching funds.
A January 2018 annual campaign report filed by Ficker showed he had already raised a little over $20,000 in 2017, more than half of the funds necessary to qualify.
According to county law, if Ficker doesn’t ask for public funding by the 15th, showing the proper receipts for valid contributions, he is precluded from using the program in the general election and will be forced to raise money as a traditional financing candidate.
The law was intended to level the playing field between candidates with more grassroots support and more heavily financed candidates, but so far the public financing matching funds seem out of reach for many. Several candidates for Montgomery County Council have already been disqualified for various reasons, and there is no appeal to the state decision.
It has also been difficult to determine how public financing works when, as in Ficker’s case, there is no primary challenger. Ficker originally thought he could not receive public monies because he does not have an opponent in the primary. He said the law as it is makes no sense and favors incumbents.
According to a Montgomery County public financing quick reference guide by county government Senior Legislative Attorney Bob Drummer, candidates must have an opponent in order to “collect” public money. Ficker’s Democratic opponent for the 2018 general election will be determined by the June 26 primary election results.
Interpreting the law
The architect of public financing legislation, former County Councilmember Phil Andrews, said a reasonable interpretation of the law is that a general election candidate would receive funding immediately after the primary election results. However, he agreed that the law doesn’t address a possible delay in the results which could come from a recount or any other number of circumstances.
Those decisions should be made by the State Board of Elections, unless those decisions are challenged and there is a Supreme Court court ruling that decides otherwise, he said.
“That should be subject to interpretation,” Andrews said. “As long as there will be an opponent — and there’s no question that someone will be certified — that should not in my view hold up when the nominee of the other party who is unopposed in the primary can receive funding. That’s the reasonable interpretation. That may not be the legal interpretation.”
GOP Chairman Uncapher said the jury is still out on whether the program will level the playing field the way backers of the public funding system intended.
“There is some lack of balance in that the system anticipates that all candidates will be in the primary, so it does put at disadvantage the candidates who don’t have a primary opponent because they’re required to qualify earlier than might otherwise be the case.”
Excluded from forums, voter guides
Ficker also regularly laments about being excluded from primary activities. He said his response to a League of Women Voters questionnaire for a primary election voters guide won’t be included in a 50,000 print edition going out across the county because he doesn’t have an opponent, but his responses will be online. He also says he doesn’t get invited to forums that Democratic candidates attend.
The league will host a Democratic forum this week for the county executive race but it is unsure if it will host one this fall for the party nominees.
“He knows he’ll have an opponent in the general election, and he knows he’ll be the nominee,” said Andrews, who ran for executive in 2014 but is not a candidate in this race. “He should in some ways have an easier time. Mr. Ficker can say, ‘look I’m going to be the nominee – support me.’”
Three of the six candidates in the county executive race long ago qualified for matching funds — County Councilmembers Marc Elrich and George Leventhal and former Montgomery County Planning Department Deputy Director Rose Krasnow.
The three remaining Democrats in the race, District 1 County Councilmember Roger Berliner, House of Delegates Majority Leader Bill Frick and businessman David Blair, will use traditional financing where contributions can be as high as $6,000 per person. Those candidates can also accept contributions from political actions committees (PACs), corporations and unions – all banned for candidates seeking public financing.
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