The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Montgomery County candidates line up for taxpayer-funded contributions

County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) is running for county executive and seeking public matching funds under the county’s new campaign-finance system. (Neal Schlosburg)

The 2018 primary is still a year away, but 17 candidates have declared their interest in qualifying for matching public funds in Montgomery County, an early sign that a new campaign finance law may be changing politics in the state's largest jurisdiction.

The rigorous requirements of the fledgling program force candidates to practice a different kind of retail politics and seek individual donations of no more than $150 rather than higher-dollar contributions from corporate political action committees, unions or wealthy individuals.

Some lesser-known candidates say they could never have competed under the old system, where giving was dominated by developers and others connected to the real estate industry. At the same time, predictions that the new law would prompt more Republicans to run in the heavily Democratic county have not come to pass.

“This is an experiment in democracy,” said longtime County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who is running for county executive and has turned to social media and house parties to collect the 500 donations he needs to qualify for matching funds.

“I don’t mind saying that when you are looking for campaign support in chunks of $1,000 or more, you spend a lot of time with millionaires,” Leventhal said. “What I’m finding now is that to get to 500, I’ve spent most of my time with ordinary working people.”

The Montgomery names on file with the Maryland Board of Elections are a mix of incumbents, first-time candidates and longtime aspirants to public office. Many are seeking four council seats being vacated because of the county’s new term-limits law.

In addition to Leventhal, the county executive candidates who say they will seek matching funds include Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and Republican attorney Robin Ficker. Ficker, who is unopposed so far, cannot collect matching funds for the primary unless he has competition. The filing deadline is Feb. 27.

Another county executive candidate, Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who scheduled his formal announcement for Wednesday evening, has not yet said whether he will pursue matching funds.

Thirteen states — including Maryland — and a handful of localities have some form of public financing for elections. Howard County on Monday approved its own system, which is similar to Montgomery's and will take effect for the 2022 election cycle.

Montgomery’s law caps individual contributions at $150 and bars money from corporate PACs and unions. Instead, eligible candidates for County Council and county executive can get taxpayer dollars added to their small individual donations.

The first $50 from each donor is matched at the highest ratio: ­6-to-1 for an executive candidate and 4-to-1 for a council contender. A candidate for county executive could collect up to $750,000 in public funds for a primary campaign, while a council hopeful could be awarded up to $450,000.

It is not likely that all of those seeking matching funds will qualify. To become eligible, executive candidates must collect at least 500 individual contributions totaling $40,000. At-large council contenders need at least 250 donations for $20,000, and those chasing district council seats need to raise $10,000 with a minimum of 125 donations.

“It’s really hard. It’s a lot more asking,” said Elrich, who has scheduled a round of fundraisers and mailings. He said he was nearing the 500-donor threshold and is hoping to collect up to $150,000 from the county treasury sometime next month.

Leventhal, who like Elrich is term-limited, said the paperwork can be cumbersome. Each individual contribution must come with a signed affidavit from the donor affirming that he or she lives in Montgomery. But Leventhal said the labor-intensive process is a welcome change from the old status quo.

The county set aside $11 million for matching funds in the budget that takes effect July 1 — an amount intended to cover both the primary and general elections. If all 17 candidates who so far have said they will seek matching funds qualified for their maximum public dollars, the total would come to a little over $4.8 million for the primary alone. Other contenders will almost certainly emerge, and the council could add more money to the system during next year’s budget cycle.

Some candidates seeking to qualify said they would be running regardless of the new system. But Wheaton activist Brandy Brooks said it has opened a new opportunity.

“It’s really made me feel like fundraising for this race is possible,” said Brooks, 40, a first-time candidate who is seeking one of the three open at-large council seats. “It didn’t have to be a barrier to taking on this new role.”

Other at-large council candidates hoping for matching funds include Danielle Meitiv, the Silver Spring "free-range mom" whose decision to let her two children, ages 10 and 6, walk home from a park sparked an investigation by authorities that in turn triggered a national uproar; incumbent Hans Riemer (D-At Large); Bill Conway, a retired Potomac attorney who has been active in county politics for years; and Rockville accountant Richard Gottfried.

District candidates include Bethesda attorney Reggie Oldak, a former Berliner aide who is running for his District 1 seat, and Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County).

Although some proponents of matching funds said it would encourage more GOP candidates, only two have expressed interest in qualifying: Ficker and District 2 candidate Edward Amatetti.

“Republican candidates don’t feel they will be able to get across the bar,” said county party chairman Dick Jurgena. “It’s early. We’re trying to get candidates to come out.”