Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews is preparing to introduce legislation that would establish the Washington region’s first system of public financing for local elections.
Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg), a candidate in the June Democratic primary for county executive, said he sees public financing as an essential counterweight to the influence of special-interest money in Montgomery elections, primarily from real estate developers and public employee unions.
His proposal, which he plans to introduce at the Feb. 4 council meeting, attempts to leverage the power of small individual contributions ($50 to $150) with matching funds.
The objective, he said, is twofold: to draw more small donors into local politics and to encourage those without money — or the ability to raise it in large amounts — to run for county executive or the County Council.
“This has the possibility of revolutionizing elections in Montgomery County,” Andrews said.
He emphasized that any new financing system would not go into effect until the 2015-18 election cycle.
Nearly half of the states — including Maryland — and a handful of cities and counties — including New York, San Francisco, Tucson and Cincinnati — have some form of public campaign financing, mostly through tax credits or matching funds. Eligible presidential candidates have had access to matching funds for primaries and general elections since 1976.
Some studies conclude that public financing has improved the diversity of competition for elective office, boosting turnout and encouraging more challenges to incumbents. Other research shows little impact. Courts have also been unfriendly, and the waves of money flowing from super PACs and independent expenditure committees have made public financing a less attractive option.
Since 1973, Maryland has offered 1-to-1 matching funds for primary and general election candidates for governor and lieutenant governor. Last month, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur became the first aspirant since 1994 to accept public financing. She could qualify for more than $1 million in state funds this year if she agrees not to spend more than roughly $2.5 million on her primary campaign.
In 2012, for the first time, both major-party presidential candidates — President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — rejected matching funds. Obama eschewed public financing in 2008, as well, breaking a campaign promise.
Last year’s campaign finance law passed by the General Assembly gives counties the option of setting up their own systems of public funding. Andrews, a former executive director of Common Cause Maryland who had spent years lobbying for the measure, said it is an opportunity for Montgomery to show the way.
Andrews’s plan is completely voluntary. Candidates who want to raise money in the traditional manner could do so without penalty. Those opting into the public system would have to raise an initial amount of “seed money” to qualify: $40,000 for a county executive candidate, $20,000 for an at-large council candidate, $10,000 for a district council seat. The maximum individual donation would be $150. No PAC money or corporate donations would be allowed.
Small donations would be matched at a higher rate — as high as a 6-to-1 ratio in some cases — to encourage many modest individual donations.
Andrews said some aspects of the proposal, such as spending limits, are negotiable. He said he realizes it will be a “tough sell” to a group of incumbents who have had success raising money the old-fashioned way. It is also not clear how the business community will respond. But he has received encouraging feedback from some colleagues.
“I think we absolutely need to do this,” said council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large). “Anybody who thinks that special interests are only a problem at the federal level is wrong.”
Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said he wants to know more about the details but believes the county needs to take advantage of the opportunity the General Assembly has provided.
“I think it would be healthy for democracy,” Berliner said.
Andrews said he has not timed the rollout of his bill to drive one of his central campaign messages — that his two opponents, incumbent Isiah Leggett (D) and former county executive Doug Duncan are “special-interest Democrats” dependent on fat contributions from real estate developers and unions.
Andrews, who does not accept contributions from developers or unions, is clearly a poster boy for public financing. The latest campaign contribution filing with the Maryland Board of Elections shows him with $117,978 in the bank, nearly all of it from individual donations of $250 or less.
Leggett, who is seeking his third term, disclosed donations of $653,986 over the past year and $971,159 total cash on hand, including funds from prior campaigns. Duncan, the former three-term county executive (1994 to 2006), reported $409,834 in contributions and $330,120 in the bank.
Their reports are studded with big contributions, many from those who have done business with the county. Leggett, for example, received $12,000 from billionaire businessman and art collector Mitchell Rales and members of his family. Rales successfully sought a controversial sewer connection from the county for his Potomac gallery in 2012.