In 2013, the New York-based public affairs firm of BerlinRosen was widely credited with taking an underdog candidate named Bill de Blasio and guiding him to a landslide win in the race for the New York City mayoralty.
Silver Spring attorney Jonathan Shurberg is placing a large bet on the firm replicating its success this year, albeit on a lower-profile playing field: Over the past two months, Shurberg has spent more than $105,000 with BerlinRosen for mailings to voters in Silver Spring/Takoma Park-based District 20, according to filings this week with the Maryland Board of Elections.
And that is just a fraction of what Shurberg has laid out in his effort to capture one of two vacant House of Delegate seats: He is among eight non-incumbent candidates vying in the June 24 Democratic primary for openings left by Del. Heather Mizeur’s run for governor and Del. Tom Hucker’s bid to shift to the County Council.
Even at a time when cost of running for office in Montgomery County is steadily escalating, and increasing numbers of candidates are subsidizing their campaigns with significant infusions of personal assets, Shurberg appears to be in category by himself: He has raised and spent close to $245,000 since launching his candidacy for the General Assembly late last year, with all but a handful of it coming out of his own pocket.
As of the end of 2013, Shurberg had lent his campaign $125,000 from his personal assets, and this week’s filing showed another $85,000 in loans to the campaign from Shurberg himself over the past five months — for a total of $210,000. Since it is the exception rather than the rule in electoral politics that such loans get repaid, they are likely to turn into de facto gifts to Shurberg’s campaign at some point down the road.
On top of that, Shurberg contributed $20,000 outright to the campaign last week, and reported another $4,100 in in-kind contributions he made to the effort. Donations from individuals other than himself total a mere $9,000, plus another $8,500 from political groups.
This has left Shurberg’s campaign with a relatively meager $13,000 in its bank account, five weeks out from Primary Day – as compared to $64,000 for one opponent, former Obama administration official Will Jawando, and $45,000 for another, political operative David Moon (who also has loaned his campaign $25,500 in personal funds). But Shurberg is said to be ready to lay out even more of his personal assets to keep pace as the campaign enters its final phase.
What has prompted Shurberg, who has run a solo law practice in Silver Spring for much of the past two decades, to invest this level of personal assets in seeking a part-time job that currently pays $43,500 annually?
“It’s never been an economic calculus in terms of my decision to run. It’s always been about a desire to continue serving my community,” replied Shurberg, who chaired Mizeur’s gubernatorial campaign before announcing for the General Assembly. “It’s what I want to do, and so I’m doing what I need to do to try to win.”
According to the newly filed disclosure reports, Shurberg’s campaign staff includes a manager and at least three other individuals; for most General Assembly campaigns this year, the norm is a single in-house staffer.
His voter canvassing efforts – “I may be the oldest guy in this race, but I’m also the one, based on what I can see, who is out there working the hardest,” the 51-year old Shurberg boasted — have been supplemented by 11 separate direct mail pieces designed and executed by Berlin Rosen. That’s three to four times the number of mailings that voters have received from most competitive state legislative candidates at this point in the campaign.
In part, the stream of mailings appears aimed at overcoming some political baggage that Shurberg brought into the race: Notably, the suspension of his license to practice law in late 2012. He won reinstatement of the license last fall, before announcing for delegate.
At the time of the suspension, the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission found Shurberg had failed to properly maintain $16,600 in funds held in trust for clients. A memo accompanying the suspension noted that Shurberg had been distracted during the period involved due to the illness of his wife, Rebecca Lord. Lord, a former County Council aide, died of cancer two years ago.
Of the suspension, Shurberg said this week: “What I’ve set out to do is to reach as many people as I can…to say, ‘Look, this is not something to be ignored, but it is one dot in one of those big paintings. It doesn’t fit the larger picture’.”
He continued: “And so, is it something to be overcome? Yes. Am I overcoming it? Yes. As I talk to people and it comes up, by the end of [the conversation], they are persuaded it is not an issue. In many cases, they are persuaded to support me. In some cases, people start out with a problem – and I end up with a sign in their yard.”
The issue continues to percolate, however: An automated telephone poll received by some District 20 voters last weekend included questions about the suspension of Shurberg’s law license suspension. It is not known who sponsored the poll.
The Shurberg campaign financed its own survey earlier this year, paying more than $16,000 to a Massachusetts-based survey firm, Abacus Associates in March, according to this week’ campaign finance filings. It was described as a pre-emptive effort to test potentially negative messages that could be used by opponents against Shurberg, including the law license suspension and three past liens involving taxes he incurred between 2000 and 2006.
With veteran Del. Sheila Hixson, chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, favored to win re-election in District 20, the leading candidates for two vacant seats – in addition to Jawando, Moon and Shurberg –include another former Obama administration official, Will Smith, and Howard University professor Darian Unger. Three other contenders – former congressional aide Justin Chappell, attorney George Zokle, and D’Juan Hopewell, most recently an official of a national anti-hunger organization – are seen as facing longer odds.
Jawando has tapped into the Obama administration alumni network in raising almost $170,000 since last fall, and – along with Moon – has received the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO and SEIU Local 500, one of the county’s biggest unions. But Jawando did not get the influential endorsement of the Montgomery County Education Association, which backed Moon and Smith.
Another group that wields clout in local elections, the Maryland Sierra Club, has endorsed Smith and Unger. Moon and Shurberg are the choice of the Montgomery County chapter of the National Organization of Women and NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.
Besides organizational endorsements and Shurberg’s bank account, demographics could also be a significant factor in the outcome on June 24: District 20 is majority minority, but no current member of its state legislative delegation is a minority group member. Nearly one-third of the district’s population is black; Jawando, Smith and Hopewell are African-American.