More than two and a half years ago, Danielle Meitiv made national headlines as the "free-range mom" after allowing her two young children to walk home alone from a Silver Spring park. Meitiv and her husband were charged — then cleared in two neglect cases.
But Meitiv still describes the nickname as a "badge of honor," especially when stopped on the street by fans (and critics) who say, "You're that mom!" It is a reputation she is carrying with her in her latest venture: running for anat-large seat on the Montgomery County Council in November 2018.
Tangling with county officials over whether her children should have been more closely supervised "showed me what it feels like to be on the other end of an unresponsive bureaucracy," Meitiv said. "That's not how government should feel to the people it serves."
Meitiv has plenty of company in the still-growing field of candidates vying for the council's four at-large seats. Three of those seats are being vacated by Democratic council members who are barred from running again because of the county's new term limits law: Marc Elrich and George Leventhal — who are both running for county executive — and Nancy Floreen. Incumbent Hans Riemer, also a Democrat, is running for reelection.
As of Friday, he and 19 other candidates had filed with the Maryland State Board of Elections for the Democratic nomination. There is one candidate filed to run under the Green Party banner. No Republicans have registered as at-large candidates with the elections board, though the deadline to file is still four months away.
The primary is next June, and the top four Democratic vote-getters will advance to the general election.
In the 2014 election cycle, six candidates sought the Democratic nomination for the at-large seats, four of them incumbents. Four candidates ran as Republicans. The incumbents won easily.
"This election is not going to be the norm," said Jared DeMarinis, director of the division of candidacy and campaign finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Candidates pointed to three main factors that contributed to creating such a broad field: the enactment of term limits, a new public financing program and the election of President Trump. The first two factors, candidates said, provide an opportunity for Montgomery citizens looking for an entry into county politics.
"It's the perfect, positive storm," said at-large candidate Gabe Albornoz, whose is director of the county's recreation department. He described public financing — approved by the County Council in 2014 and in place for the first time this election cycle — as "an important tool to get people more engaged in the electoral process."
Candidate Hoan Dang, a program analyst for a federal contractor, said "public financing is leveling the playing field" since those who participate cannot accept donations over $150, but they can get government matching funds that allow them to compete with candidates that can raise large sums from the private sector.
Candidates hoping to qualify for the public financing program are barred from accepting corporate or PAC contributions. At-large candidates must collect at least 250 donations, totaling $20,000, to receive their first installment of matching funds.
As of Sept. 30, 18 at-large candidates had filed a notice of intent to the State Board of Elections to participate in public financing.
Dang said another factor that might encourage people to enter the race could be tied to a "snowballing effect."
"If there's 25, and there could be as many as 40 candidates, then more people start to think, 'Well, I need a smaller percentage of votes,' so they jump in," Dang said.
Then there are motivators stemming from beyond Montgomery County, a mostly liberal enclave that has not elected a Republican official in recent memory.
Bill Conway, an electricity attorney who is seeking one of the Democratic at-large nominations, said Trump's election was what "pushed me over to running," adding that "Trump in the background has shocked us all out of our complacency."
Meitiv, the "free-range mom," said many residents of the county — where more than three-quarters voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election — are suffering from a "Trump hangover."
Yet a key question that remains unsolved is how to manage an election — including debates or forums — in which new candidates seem to enter every week.
Earlier this month, a dozen candidates who had filed for candidacy took part in a forum where each was given a few minutes to speak. Attendees could then talk to candidates scattered throughout a large yard and ask questions on specific issues.
Candidates said it will be difficult to substantively discuss county issues as the fieldwidens.
"We saw the Republican [presidential] debates with 20 people — it becomes a sound bite thing," said Will Jawando, a former Obama administration official who lost a Democratic primary race last year for an open congressional seat and is running for an at-large council seat in 2018. "I don't think it's particularly helpful for voters."
Issues that have dominated county politics for years will once again bear on this election, with candidates emphasizing Montgomery's problems with traffic and public transit, overcrowded schools, and concerns for public safety.
Many candidates say they want to address the needs of the county's senior population and secure more affordable housing, boost the county's economy, and improve job growth.
But even if the issues are familiar, many of the faces will be new. In addition to the crowded at-large race, a multiple-candidate race for a term-limited district council seat means that the county council sworn in late next year will have more first-time lawmakers than the panel has seen in many years.
"It's a historic election," Jawando said. "The direction of Montgomery County is going to change. The question is who is going to lead that change, and who is going to be a part of that."
The other Democratic candidates who have filed so far are: Marilyn Balcombe, Shruti Bhatnagar, Cherri L. Branson, Brandy Brooks, Ron Colbert, Loretta Jean Garcia, Evan Glass, Richard Gottfried, Neil H. Greenberger, Ashwani Jain, Melissa McKenna, Darwin Romero, Mohammad Siddique and Chris Wilhelm.