MoCo’s New Public Financing Law Has Dispensed $851,000 To Candidates Since Mid-Year

County exec contenders Elrich and Leventhal are beneficiaries, as are five council aspirants


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County Council members George Leventhal, Hans Riemer and Marc Elrich. Leventhal and Elrich are running for county executive, while Riemer is running for re-election to his at-large council seat.

PROVIDED PHOTOS/FILE PHOTO

Montgomery County’s public campaign financing law, adopted three years ago, has allocated more than $851,000 to 2018 candidates for county executive and County Council, according to monthly reports from the county’s Department of Finance.

The October report, published Wednesday, showed that nearly $333,000 was distributed in the past month alone to qualifying candidates. The lion’s share of that—a little more than $272,000—went to at-large County Council member Marc Elrich, a contender for the Democratic nomination for county executive.

Fellow at-large Council member George Leventhal—the other announced Democratic candidate for county executive who is participating in the public financing system—received more than $23,000 in October. That’s on top of previous allocations of $197,000 in July and $13,000 in August.

All told, Leventhal has qualified for $233,000 in public funding.

Also qualifying for public funds in October was District 2 County Council candidate Edward Amatetti, a North Potomac resident who is the first Republican to benefit from the new system. Amatetti received nearly $37,200.

Amatetti is the fifth council candidate to meet the fundraising thresholds necessary to tap into public funding.

Three at-large council candidates have received funding allocations: Council member Hans Riemer of Takoma Park, the only incumbent allowed to seek re-election under the 2016 term limit referendum, and non-incumbents Bill Conway of Potomac and Hoan Dang of Silver Spring. So has District 1 council aspirant Regina “Reggie” Oldak of Bethesda.

The County Council approved $11 million in public campaign funding for the 2018 election cycle, based in part on the recommendations of a committee established to advise on implementation of the new statute. The funds distributed since July 1 leave slightly less than $10.15 million to be dispensed to qualifying candidates, with about eight months to go until the June 26 primary and a year out from Election Day 2018.

The Department of Finance, at the beginning of July, said it had determined that the $11 million appropriated for public campaign financing “is sufficient to meet the maximum public contributions reasonably expected to be required during the 2018 election cycle.” The statement was contained in a letter from Alexandre Espinosa, the department’s director, to County Council President Roger Berliner.

The council has not received any followup communications from the Department of Finance since then to indicate concerns that the money could run out, despite a record number of candidates taking aim at three at-large council seats opened up by last year’s term limits vote.

According to the Maryland Board of Elections Web site, 33 Montgomery County local candidates—three for county executive, 21 for at-large council member, and nine for district council member—have set up public financing committees.

Depending on how much they can raise in individual donations of no more than $150, those 33 candidates could theoretically qualify for a maximum combined total of $8.625 million in public funding—leaving $2.375 million available for candidates not yet in the race who may opt to go that route.

To qualify for public financing, candidates must agree to raise money only from individuals and limit any single outside contribution to $150. In return, county executive candidates can be eligible to receive up to $750,000 in public subsidies per election, with $250,000 apiece for at-large council candidates and $125,000 each for district council candidates.

Under the law, the primary and general elections are considered separate for purposes of allocating funding. For example, whoever emerges from the Democratic primary for county executive could be eligible for an additional $750,000 in the general election.

On top of this, if all nine council seats—four at-large and five district—are contested in next fall’s general election, it could potentially translate into as much as $4 million in public subsidies ($2 million for at-large candidates and $1.25 million for district candidates, in addition to $750,000 for a county executive candidate).

While this could cause the public financing fund to go into the red, such a scenario is unlikely in Democratic-dominated Montgomery County.

In 2014, the Republican Party failed to field candidates for two of five district council seats, and, for the most part, mounted little more than a token effort for the at-large and district seats that it did contest. Plus, some of the Democratic nominees for executive and council could emerge from the ranks of those who have opted against using the public financing system.     

The potential maximum total funding of $8.625 million for the present field of candidates breaks down as follows:

* The three county executive candidates who have tapped into the public funding system—Democrats Elrich and Leventhal, both Takoma Park residents, and Republican Robin Ficker of Boyds—could potentially max out at $750,000 apiece, for a combined total of $2.25 million in public funding. Ficker currently has no primary opposition, but could receive public subsidies for the general election.

The other announced Democratic contenders, Councilmember Roger Berliner of North Bethesda and Delegate Bill Frick are raising private contributions in the traditional manner. Potomac businessman David Blair, who is expected to announce his candidacy this month, has signaled that he will partially self-finance and raise private donations.

Executive candidates must receive at least 500 contributions of $150 or less—totaling at least $40,000—to qualify initially for public funding.

To trigger the $272,000 that he received in October, Elrich reported 688 private contributions totaling a little more than $59,300. Since July, when he reported 542 separate private donations, Leventhal has raised a total of $51,250 to qualify for his $233,000 in public funds.

* For the 21 at-large council candidates who have created public financing committees, the total bill could come to $5.25 million if each qualifies for the full amount of $250,000 each. That includes 20 Democrats (out of 26 Democrats who have filed or declared their intention to run at-large), plus a Green Party contender, retired federal archivist Tim Willard of Kensington.

At-large council candidates must raise at least 250 small private contributions totaling $20,000 for the public funding system to kick in.

Riemer qualified for $86,100 in public funding after raising a little more than $25,400 in August. A month later, Conway, a retired attorney, received a public funding allocation of $100,700 after first raising a little more than $32,200; Dang, a federal contractor and community organizer, received $73,800 after raising nearly $23,700.

* So far, nine candidates—seven Democrats and two Republicans—seeking district council seats have opted into the public financing system. Each could qualify for as much as $125,000, for a combined total of $1.125 million.

Besides Amatetti—a former teacher and government auditor who was a candidate for the county Board of Education in 2014—the other district council contender to receive public funding so far is Oldak, an attorney and former candidate for state delegate. Seeking the Democratic nomination in District 1, she received nearly $48,200 in August after raising 144 private contributions totaling a little more than $15,200.

District council candidates must raise at least 125 in private contributions totaling $10,000 before receiving public funding. Amatetti reported 174 donations totaling a little more than $10,900 to qualify for the $37,200 he was allocated last month.

The nine candidates for district council seats who have set up public financing committees to date, includes two incumbents: District 3 Council member Sidney Katz of Gaithersburg and District 4 Council member Nancy Navarro of Silver Spring. Neither has yet received public funding.

Katz has opposition in the Democratic primary from Ben Shnider, a Rockville-based political operative and civic activist, who has opted not to participate in the public financing system.

Navarro is so far unopposed in the primary and general election. Candidates must have opposition to obtain public funding, although they can be certified as eligible for the public financing system by the Maryland Board of Elections before an opponent actually emerges.

Besides the $150 limit on outside contributions, candidates must agree to restrict donations or loans from themselves or their spouses to no more $6,000 each—for a cap of $12,000 per couple per election.

The council’s Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee Thursday is holding a hearing on a bill to modify this provision by raising the amount unmarried candidates can give to themselves—from $6,000 to the $12,000 now allowed for candidate and spouse.

Only candidates for county executive and County Council are eligible for public funding. Candidates for the so-called “courthouse offices”—state’s attorney, sheriff, clerk of the Circuit Court, and register of wills—are not.

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