Montgomery County sets up $11M public campaign fund for 2018

By Glynis Kazanjian

The Montgomery County Council approved an $11 million public campaign financing fund — the first in Maryland — for the 2018 elections when it adopted the county’s $5.4 billion budget for fiscal 2018 last Thursday.

The new public campaign finance law could be a model for other Maryland counties, such as Howard County, which is considering its own version for local races.

Montgomery’s new law gets mixed reviews.  It is not clear whether the new system will meet its promised goals of keeping special interest money out of campaigns, leveling the playing the field for newcomers and increasing voter turnout.

Robin Ficker, a Republican running for county executive, who successfully spearheaded a 2016 petition referendum imposing term limits on the county executive and council members, calls the new program “self-serving.”

Four of the nine councilmembers have already filed to use the fund they set up.

‘Self-serving,’ Ficker says

“The tax-increase specialists on the County Council concluded they didn’t have any competition on the Republican side anymore,” Ficker said.  In Montgomery, Democrats enjoy a three-to-one advantage in registered voters over Republicans. “They thought they might as well finance their own campaigns now.”

The new law, which passed unanimously through the all-Democrat, nine-member Council in 2014, will debut for the 2018 elections. It allows qualified candidates participating in the county executive and county council races to receive taxpayer-subsidized funds if they get enough smaller campaign contributions from county residents.

The council provided $1 million more than the request from County Executive Ike Leggett, but that aligned with the recommendation of a county committee reviewing funding.  The Council added $5 million, instead of $4 million, to an existing fund of $6 million, which had been approved in prior budgets.

To qualify for public campaign financing, county executive candidates must collect 500 contributions totaling $40,000; county council at large candidates 250 contributions totaling $20,000; and county council district candidates 125 contributions totaling $10,000.

County executive candidates can receive up to $750,000 for both the primary and general elections; county council at-large candidates, $250,000; and county council district candidates $125,000.

Reducing special interest money

At-Large County Councilmember Marc Elrich, D, who is also running for county executive and planning to use public funding, believes the new system will help reduce special interest money in elections.

“It’s more for the public than anything,” Elrich said. “The candidates are going to have to be largely financed by the public.  The large donors, who have the resources to mount the campaign, are not going to be able to shape it.”

The law prohibits political action committees (PACs), corporations, labor organizations and state and local political committees from contributing to candidates who participate in public campaign financing.  It also caps individual contributions at $150.

“The caveat is public financing doesn’t require everybody to public finance,” Elrich conceded.  “A non-public funded candidate can easily raise more money than [a candidate] with fewer donors. Large donors who have traditionally dominated donations can just create PACs.”

Todd Eberly, political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, takes the case a step further.

“Public financing won’t have an impact on big money at all,” Eberly said.  “[The U.S. Supreme Court case] Citizens United established that corporations and unions can spend unlimited money independent of a candidate. The research conducted on public finance systems in other states has shown that public financing systems does free candidates from the burden of continually fundraising, but incumbent candidates continue to enjoy a tremendous advantage over competitors.”

Eberly said it is a “false hope” to think candidates won’t be beholden to big donors just because the contributions are not coordinated with their campaigns.  In fact, Eberly said, independent expenditures increased in New York after public financing was introduced.

Both Ficker and Elrich believe new or unknown candidates will never see those types of independent donations.

Helping new candidates

Rachael Rice, a seasoned Democratic fundraiser who has worked for dozens of Maryland candidates, including former Attorney General Doug Gansler, believes the public funding program will help new candidates.

“Fundraising generally is much easier for incumbents and this new law may change that, depending on how it plays out. ” Rice said.  “I think it will be helpful to challengers because it gives them access to funds that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Candidates would receive $6 for every $1 of the first $50 raised in the county executive race and $4 for every $1 raised of the first $50 in county council races.  The county matches decrease with every $50 raised.

In Montgomery, candidates participating in public funding have no limit on how much money they can raise in small contributions.  Contributions can also come from outside of the candidate’s district, county and state. But county funds will only be matched to county contributions.

Montgomery County Democratic Party Vice Chair Emily Shetty sees that as an advantage to all voters.

“What we’ve seen in prior [election] cycles is that voters who donate to a candidate are voters who turnout to an election,” Shetty said.  “The matching [contribution] system will incentivize people who have not previously participated.  I think we’ll see increased voter turnout which is in the best interest of democracy.”

Republican council candidate

Tom Ferleman, a Republican running in County Council District 2 in the north county, currently represented by Democrat Craig Rice, said he believes his campaign has the momentum and the network to collect the contributions needed to become eligible for public financing.

Ferleman said he and his team considered whether they could get 125 or 130 contributors who could each donate $80, the average contribution amount.

“We could probably raise about $30,000 in contributions by the time of the general election,” Ferleman said.  “We are leaning in that direction.  It’s all about momentum.”

To date, 16 people interested in running for either county executive or County Council have filed notices with the State Board of Elections of their intent to use public campaign funds:  Besides Ficker and Elrich, they are Councilmembers George Leventhal (running for executive), Hans Riemer and Nancy Navarro; Tim Willard, Bill Conway, Chris Wilhelm, Ukiah Busch, Richard Gottfried,  Ed Amatetti, Bill Cook, Reggie Oldak, Hoan Dang, Brandy Brooks and Tony Puca.