It appears being an incumbent can be an asset when it comes to collecting the small-dollar contributions required for participation in Montgomery County’s new public election financing system.
Over the past two days, Democratic County Council members Marc Elrich, George Leventhal and Hans Riemer each announced they’ve received the minimum amount of small-dollar contributions from county residents required to qualify for matching contributions under the new system.
Leventhal and Elrich are running for county executive while Riemer is running for re-election to his at-large council seat in 2018. The primary election is June 26, 2018.
According to county law, candidates who opt to use the system can only receive contributions ranging from $5 to $150 from county residents. Candidates can’t accept donations from PACs, corporations, labor organizations or party committees. Candidates who opt for private financing are not restricted from receiving donations from those special interest groups and can receive individual contributions up to $6,000.
As a way to prove candidates are viable before receiving public funds, the law requires county executive candidates to receive at least 500 individual contributions that total at least $40,000, while at-large council candidates must receive at least 250 individual contributions that total $20,000. Candidates running for district council seats can qualify for matching funds if they receive 125 individual contributions totaling $10,000.
Once candidates hit those thresholds, they can receive county funds that are provided as multiples of an individual contribution. For example, if a resident gives a county executive candidate $50, then the candidate receives $300 from the county—making the resident’s $50 contribution worth $350 for the candidate. The matching funds are reduced if a resident provides more than $50. After the first $50, the county executive candidate would receive $4 in county funds for every dollar contributed—so a contribution of $100 is matched with $500 in county funds and provides the candidate with $600. A $150 contribution results in a total of $750 for a candidate.
How small-dollar contributions are multiplied with county funds under the county election public financing system. Credit: Montgomery County
The multiples are less for council candidates, but the idea behind the law is to provide an impetus for residents to become more invested in local elections by donating to candidates that they support. The lucrative matching arrangement also creates an incentive for candidates to pursue the small-dollar donations, knowing that they’ll receive a significant amount of county funds in return.
“I think people are responding very positively to the opportunity to have an impact as grassroots donors,” Riemer said Wednesday. “I’m finding a lot of enthusiasm among county residents. It has taken consistent effort to raise the contributions, but it’s very feasible.”
There is a limit to how much candidates can receive in county matching funds—$750,000 for county executive candidates, $250,000 for at-large council candidates and $125,000 for district council candidates. The county has budgeted $11 million for the public election financing.
Elrich and Leventhal both announced on Facebook that they had hit the thresholds. Elrich encouraged his supporters to continue donating—noting that if he hits the maximum in matching contributions, he’ll have about $900,000 to spend on his county executive campaign. He said that amount is less than the typical executive race has cost, but that he believes it will be enough to run a “successful” campaign.
Elrich said Wednesday he will continue his past practice of not accepting campaign donations from developers or land use attorneys. He said his staff keeps a list of known development company executives and attorneys in order to vet contributions and will send back money if he receives any from them.
Leventhal, in his announcement, said he will release the names of his contributors after the contributions are certified by the state Board of Elections.
“The support of hundreds of my constituents means so much to me and I am humbled and grateful,” Leventhal said Tuesday in a statement about hitting the threshold. “I am an enthusiastic participant in the [public financing system] that the County Council enacted in 2013. Our constituents want to know that elected officials are accountable to them, not subject to the influence of big money.”
The small-dollar contributions to all three candidates must be vetted by the state’s elections board to make sure the donors are county residents and that they didn’t donate more than once. Candidates can begin submitting their contribution lists for board approval on July 4. Once the board certifies the contributions, the candidates can begin receiving matching funds from the county.
Due to a quirk in the county law, candidates who submit contribution lists to the board that are below the threshold are ineligible for participation in the public financing system. As a result, Riemer and Elrich both said they’ve carefully reviewed their contribution lists to make sure addresses are accurate and donor forms were filled out properly.
Riemer said he has received donations totaling about $23,000 from more than 330 residents—well over the threshold for at-large candidates—in case the board finds any issues with his contributions.
The council on June 22 discussed the quirk and council members said it didn’t adhere to the spirit of the law. The council is working on draft legislation to amend the public financing law so that candidates who unknowingly miss the threshold aren’t kicked out of the system. Riemer said the council soon will consider amending the law.
So far 17 candidates—including Riemer, Leventhal, Elrich and District 4 incumbent council member Nancy Navarro—have filed paperwork with the state Board of Elections to participate in the county’s public financing system in 2018.
Phil Andrews, the former council member who championed the public financing law for more than a decade before it was passed, said he was pleased with the number of candidates who plan to use the system.
“I think it’s likely to increase participation by county residents in county elections,” Andrews said in a recent interview. “Regardless of who wins—even if incumbents are re-elected—they’ll be more independent of interest groups. I think the public will feel more confident about decisions made by elected officials and I also think it’s a system that will encourage more people to run.”
Andrews also said he believes the $11 million the county may spend funding candidates is a small price to pay if it prevents special interests from significantly influencing candidates and elections.
“When you consider the county budget is $5 billion per year … this is a very tiny fraction of that amount that is meant to ensure [the elected officials] who make those decisions about county funding are elected by individuals and not special interest groups,” Andrews said.