George L. Leventhal was an unsuccessful candidate for Montgomery County executive in 2018. He has served on the Montgomery County Council since 2002.
In 2014, the Montgomery County Council adopted an experiment in democracy, to be tested in the 2018 election. Public campaign financing was supposed to open opportunities for a more diverse, grass-roots pool of candidates and reduce the influence of big money. Candidates who opted into the program agreed to forego contributions from corporations, political action committees and labor unions, and to limit individual donations to no more than $150 per contributor. In return, they received a generous match from a public fund appropriated through the county budget. A similar program was adopted by the Howard County Council for implementation in 2022.
Now that the primary election (which usually is decisive in determining winners in heavily Democratic Montgomery) is over, how did the experiment work?
Not very well in the county executive and open-seat District 1 races, better in the race for at-large Montgomery County Council seats.
Council member Marc Elrich (D-At large) and businessman David Blair, both of whom held substantial leads over the other four Democratic candidates, were virtually tied before all provisional and absentee votes were counted. Elrich participated in the public campaign finance program, but his campaign benefited from substantial outside spending from labor unions and left-leaning independent expenditure PACs. Blair mostly self-funded his campaign. When all spending by candidates and PACs is totaled, the result will be vastly more campaign spending for the office of county executive than in the county’s history.
In the District 1 Montgomery County Council race (Chevy Chase-Bethesda-Potomac-Poolesville), the candidate who raised the most money and did not participate in the public finance system, Andrew Friedson, won by a comfortable margin. In Districts 2, 4 and 5, incumbent council members faced only token challenges, and in District 3, incumbent Sidney Katz, who participated in the public finance program, prevailed against a vigorous challenge from Ben Shnider, who did not.
The at-large Montgomery County Council race produced a more promising outcome for proponents of public campaign finance. All four winners — incumbent Hans Riemer, Evan Glass, Will Jawando and Gabe Albornoz — participated in the program, although Riemer and Jawando were also the beneficiaries of independent expenditures by the county teachers’ union, and Albornoz and Glass benefited from independent spending by the Realtors’ PAC.
An important factor in the county executive and District 1 races was that The Post, which editorialized in favor of public campaign finance in 2014, did not consider it an important factor in determining whom to endorse in 2018, choosing Blair, the wealthy self-funder, for executive, and Friedson, who opted out of the system.
And the pool of candidates for county executive was not very diverse. It included five white men and one white woman. In the District 1 race, two white women (Reggie Oldak and Meredith Wellington) and one Latina (Ana Sol Gutierrez), lost to the white male candidate (Friedson) who raised the most money under the traditional system. Again, the at-large race offered more promising outcomes. Although no women were elected, Albornoz is Latino, Jawando is African American, and Glass is gay. Unfortunately, the ratio of men to women on the County Council is likely to go from its current 7-2 to 8-1, a step backward for diversity.
If the public finance system is to be practical for county executive candidates in the future, a few changes should be considered:
While some candidates for County Council seats drew down the maximum allowed public match, no county executive candidate was able to get the full $750,000 match. Given that the target was difficult, we should consider raising the individual donor limit of $150 or increasing the match per donation.
Also, a successful candidate in a primary election cannot seek donations from any supporter who gave $150 before the primary. This puts a public-financing nominee who faces a well-funded general-election opponent at a tremendous disadvantage. A publicly financed nominee should be able to start with a clean slate after the primary to allow previous donors to contribute again in the general election.
Unfortunately, restricting the ability of wealthy candidates to self-fund or of special interest groups to mount independent expenditure campaigns are both off the table under the Supreme Court’s Buckley v. Valeo decision.
Candidates for county executive and County Council will have to assess whether participating in the public campaign finance program, with its cumbersome paperwork requirements and overall fundraising and spending constraints, is worthwhile. Results this year are not encouraging.