Over the next year and a half, politics in Maryland’s most populous and economically powerful county is likely to be turned on its head.
A new limit of three consecutive terms for officeholders, overwhelmingly approved by Montgomery voters this past week, creates an unprecedented four open seats on the nine-member County Council and one in the county executive’s office. A new publicly financed campaign system will allow eligible candidates to leverage small individual contributions into bigger donations from taxpayers.
The rule changes are unlikely to alter the partisan makeup of political leadership in a county where Democrats enjoy a 3-to-1 voter-registration advantage over Republicans. But they will open the door to a new group of decision-makers charged with addressing traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, economic development and other urgent issues in a rapidly urbanizing county.
“This has the potential to be a transformational election,” said first-term council member Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County).
He and others say they anticipate a deep and unusually diverse field of candidates competing to replace the small, well-financed incumbent political class that has dominated county government for years.
The two potential game changers — term limits and public campaign finance — were born at opposite ends of the county’s political axis. Public funding, passed by the council in 2014, was championed by then-council member Phil Andrews and progressive groups such as Common Cause. The petition drive that put term limits on the ballot was spearheaded by Republican activist Robin Ficker with assistance from Help Save Maryland, a group opposed to county policies that are friendly to immigrants who are in the country illegally.
The measure passed by a margin of 70 percent to 30 percent, boosted by fatigue with the county’s culture of incumbency and a degree of the antipathy toward government that swept President-elect Donald Trump into the White House.
Taken together, they seem likely to create a number of crowded Democratic and Republican primary races, featuring veteran politicians who are term-limited but seeking new posts, candidates backed by a business sector eager to promote new ideas, and hopefuls who may lack a deep donor base but see the possibility of competing with small contributions and matching funds.
“A lot of people are salivating over it,” said Gabriel Acevero, an organizer for United Food and Commercial Workers and vice president of the African American Democratic Club of Montgomery County. “For a lot of folks, particularly candidates of color and women, this is a great opportunity.”
The county’s business leaders, most of them in the real estate sector, have been a major source of campaign contributions in Montgomery. But they will be limited in their ability to directly fund candidates who choose to enter the public finance system, which bars PAC money and caps individual contributions at $150. The county’s influential public employee unions will be subject to the same limits.
Big special-interest dollars are unlikely to be shut out of the political process completely, however. A new set of independent expenditure (IE) committees not bound by the small-donor law could spring up to support favored candidates.
“2018 could be the year of the IE,” said Steve Silverman, a former council member and county economic development director who now lobbies for corporate and nonprofit clients.
There are signs that the business sector will be newly aggressive in recruiting and supporting candidates of its own, who might bypass party primaries to run as independents. Private-sector leaders have become increasingly outspoken about their unhappiness with recent increases in property and recordation taxes, a higher minimum wage and what they consider a lackluster county record of attracting and retaining jobs — Marriott International’s decision to remain in Bethesda notwithstanding.
“The business community is very concerned that we have not been hitting the ball down the middle of the fairway,” said Charles K. Nulsen III, president of Washington Property Company, which has extensive holdings in Bethesda, Silver Spring and Northern Virginia.
Last year Nulsen and other corporate leaders founded Empower Montgomery, a tax-exempt nonprofit intended to foster voter engagement and education around key issues. As a 501(c)(4) under federal tax law, Empower Montgomery cannot directly contribute to campaigns, but it can express support for or opposition to candidates as long as that is not its principal activity. It is not required to disclose the names of donors.
Silverman, an adviser to the group, said its focus will be on issues.
One executive involved with the group, health-services entrepreneur David T. Blair, is said by political insiders to be considering a run for council or county executive. Blair did not return phone messages last week. Another, more familiar business name in play is David Trone, the wine merchant who spent a record $13.4 million this spring in an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination to represent Maryland’s 8th Congressional District.
Multiple people in county politics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said Trone is considering a run for county executive, among other options. Through a spokesman, Trone said in an email: “The campaign for Congress strengthened my commitment to be in public service. A number of people have suggested opportunities in that regard, and I am in the process of deciding on my next step.”
Another group trying to recruit business-friendly candidates is headed by land-use attorney Robby Brewer and Barbara Henry, managing director of the Committee for Montgomery, which pursues a legislative agenda for the county in Annapolis. Henry declined to comment last week; Brewer did not return a phone message.
The object of all the behind-the-scenes jockeying is the unprecedented lineup of open seats created by the passage of the term-limits ballot question.
Four council members, all Democrats, are barred from running for reelection: four-term at-large representatives George L. Leventhal and Nancy Floreen, and three-term lawmakers Roger Berliner (Potomac-Bethesda) and Marc Elrich (At-Large).
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), one of just two people to have held the office over the past 22 years, is serving his third term and said even before the term-limits vote passed that he would retire after 2018.
Political chatter in the county is filled with the names of hopefuls who are looking hard at the opportunities — including term-limited council members who appear undeterred by the anti-incumbent sentiment that helped fuel the ballot amendment.
Both Leventhal and Elrich plan to run for county executive, and Floreen and Berliner may, as well. Council member Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), a two-term incumbent, also is weighing a bid, which could make him the only African American candidate in the field.
Leventhal is first out of the gate. His fundraiser in Silver Spring this coming Saturday limits contributions to $150 so he can qualify for matching funds. Elrich is expected to do the same.
The openings on the council and in the executive’s office also have attracted wide interest from many who have run before and lost, and from members of the county’s state legislative delegation. At least two Democrats in Annapolis, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. and Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (Montgomery), whose father, Sid Kramer, was county executive from 1986 to 1990, said they are looking seriously at the executive’s race.
Both would have to relinquish safe seats to make the race, and a state lawmaker who became county executive probably would have to give up any outside employment. Anyone elected as executive or to the council could hold the post for no more than 12 years.
But the incentives are just as strong: a higher profile, no leadership to defer to, and a hefty raise over their current part-time government salaries of $46,000. (The county executive makes $190,000; council members will make $136,000 by the end of 2017).
“I think probably every state legislator in Montgomery County is going to give it some thought,” said Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery), who is thinking about Berliner’s 1st District seat.
Other Democrats considering Berliner’s job are Dels. Ariana B. Kelly (Montgomery) and Marc A. Korman (District 16), as well as Andrew Friedson, a senior aide to Comptroller Peter Franchot and former campaign adviser to Trone. Those weighing at-large bids for council include Del. Charles E. Barkley (D-Montgomery) — who might also run in Upcounty’s 2nd District if Rice becomes a candidate for county executive — and at least two top county officials, Recreation Department Director (and former county Democratic chair) Gabriel Albornoz and White Oak planning director (and former Kensington mayor) Peter Fosselman, who said he also is considering the 1st District contest.
Public financing also is expected to attract a less prominent group of Democratic activists who lack the established fundraising networks needed to run competitive campaigns.
To qualify, candidates for executive need to collect at least 500 contributions that add up to at least $40,000. At-large council candidates must get 250 donations worth $20,000. District seat candidates are required to secure 125 contributions totaling $10,000.
All contributions are limited to $150 per person. Those who qualify would have their donations matched with public money. The first $50 from each donor would be matched at the highest ratio: 6 to 1 for an executive candidate and 4 to 1 for a council contender.
The bill caps public contributions to county executive candidates at $1.5 million — $750,000 each for primary and general elections. At-large council hopefuls are limited to $250,000, and district council contenders to $125,000 — sums large enough to run sustainable campaigns in Montgomery.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t paying attention,” said William Roberts, 30, president of the Montgomery County Young Democrats. While he also may opt for an open state House seat, he said the public financing model will open the race for others.
“Now’s the time for young people who are serious about helping move the county forward to be able to run,” he said.