When Steve Silverman first ran for County Council at-large in 1998, he was one of a field of eight candidates for four available Democratic primary nominations—with two of those seats open that year. When Gail Ewing made her three runs for council at-large in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the fields generally numbered six to seven people.
And that’s the way it’s usually been since—until 2018. “There’s never been anything close to this in the history of the county,” said Silverman, referring to the current at-large race in which 33 Democrats—attracted by three seats opened up by term limits—are competing in Tuesday’s primary.
If the size of this year’s candidate pool is unprecedented, there is also virtually no precedent for attempting to handicap who will be headed to Rockville once the Democratic primary results for council at-large—tantamount to election in Montgomery County—come in. Among some of the key questions:
—In a primary with higher-profile contests for governor and county executive at the top of the ticket, will many in the voting booth—once they come upon nearly three dozen names, many of them unfamiliar—simply throw up their hands and move on to the next office on the ballot?
—Will candidates try to get the word out to their supporters to “bullet vote,” i.e. simply vote for a favored candidate rather than exercise their prerogative to select four at-large nominees? “I never used that approach,” Ewing, who served on the council from 1990-1998, said in an interview. “But I’ve seen it used, and this would be the highest likelihood of it ever happening because the field is so large … and there’s too much to deal with for voters.”
—In such a massive field of candidates, how many votes will be needed to secure a nomination? In 2014, when there were a mere six Democratic candidates in the council at-large primary, the winning totals ranged from 57,600 to 46,300 (for Marc Elrich and George Leventhal, respectively, both now contenders for county executive). This year, there are predictions that a nomination could be secured with half the votes—or less—of Elrich’s total.
“The numbers could be very low—under 30,000, and still win,” said Ewing, who has not endorsed any of this year’s at-large candidates.
Given the daunting challenges candidates have faced in attempting to differentiate themselves and their platforms in a field of 33, a point of agreement among many political insiders is that major endorsements collected and money raised during the course of this year’s campaign will be key factors in determining the winners. In turn, that translates into no more than one-third—and likely less—of the 33 candidates having any kind of realistic shot of making it into the final four on election night.
While organizational endorsements have been seen as waning in influence in recent county elections, they may well enjoy a resurgence in clout this year. “I would be very surprised if someone broke through that wasn’t endorsed by one of those major actors,” Silverman, who served on the council from 1998 until an unsuccessful run for county executive in 2006, said in an interview. “I think [endorsements] will be far more significant this year than in previous years, because there’s no way for the average voter to be able to distinguish among the candidates. It’s enough of a challenge for candidates to even get someone to remember their names, much less what they actually stand for.”
When Silverman—who has not endorsed any of this year’s at-large candidates—speaks of the “major actors,” he means “the teachers association [Montgomery County Education Association], [County Executive] Ike Leggett, the Sierra Club and The Washington Post. Those are the major endorsers who have influence in a Democratic primary.”
An analysis of those endorsements explains why a handful of contenders—current council member Hans Riemer of Takoma Park, former county Recreation Department director Gabe Albornoz of Kensington, Silver Spring civic activist/former journalist Evan Glass, and attorney/former Obama administration official Will Jawando of Silver Spring—have risen to the top of the list in assessments of the race by political insiders. Such assessments are reinforced by recent private polling results—there have been no public polls released—although, with a high percentage of respondents in those surveys registering in the undecided/no opinion category, polling reliability is yet another question mark surrounding Tuesday’s outcome.
Of the four major endorsements cited by Silverman, Riemer has garnered all four; Jawando, three; and Albornoz and Glass, two each.
Riemer is also the only incumbent running this year and has name recognition that comes from two prior countywide runs. Glass and Jawando also have name identification from prior runs for office; Glass ran a close race for the District 5 council seat four years ago, and Jawando has been a candidate for state House of Delegates and Congress, respectively, in the past two elections. Albornoz has never run for elected office before but enjoys a wide network—thanks not only to more than decade as recreation director, but also his 2012-2014 stint as chair of the county’s Democratic central committee.
All four have been sufficiently well-funded to mail out multiple large, glossy fliers to those Democrats most likely to turn out. In fact, of the four candidates who have raised at least $300,000 in this year’s at-large race—with a boost from public financing—three of them are Glass, Jawando and Riemer. Regardless of who comes out on top on Primary Day, the county’s new public financing program is among the year’s big winners: Of the 10 or so at-large contenders given a realistic shot at landing among the top four vote-getters, all but a couple have tapped into public financing.
Rounding out the group who has raised $300,000-plus with the help of public financing is retired attorney Bill Conway of Potomac. While Conway lacks the major organizational endorsements of the others in that group, he is from a section of the county where there are few other candidates in this year’s at-large race, and has garnered endorsements from several elected officials in that area. Those who have endorsed him include U.S. Rep John Delaney, another Potomac resident, as well as the District 15 state legislative delegation. Conway and his wife, long-time environmental and civic activist Diana Conway, also have built a large network in Democratic Party circles; they have often opened their home to fundraising events for county Democratic candidates.
Conway also has shown well in recent private polling, as has Chris Wilhelm of Chevy Chase, a teacher at Northwood High School in Silver Spring. Wilhelm has the backing of the MCEA, of which he is a member, and several other unions. With the backing of the Metro D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, he is taking aim at the left wing of the Democratic electorate.
In recent weeks, Wilhelm has informally teamed up with Brandy Brooks of Wheaton, a staffer for labor-affiliated Progressive Maryland; the two have sent out at least two joint mailings. Like Wilhelm, Brooks has the backing of the MCEA and several other unions, along with the Democratic Socialists of America chapter. After a slow start, Brooks—a county resident since only 2015—is said to be steadily moving up in private polling, following a series of endorsements and her teaming up with Wilhelm.
Other at-large candidates who are seen as having a shot at winning one of the four seats include (from left) Chris Wilhelm, Brandy Brooks, Bill Conway, Danielle Meitiv, Jill Ortman-Fouse and Marilyn Balcombe. Provided photos
She is one of several female contenders believed to have a shot at one of the four nominations. Others in this group include Gaithersburg/Germantown Chamber of Commerce CEO Marilyn Balcombe, county Board of Education member Jill Ortman-Fouse of Silver Spring, and science consultant Danielle Meitiv of Silver Spring, who gained visibility in the 2015 “free range parenting” controversy before being appointed to the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee a year ago.
But, despite the MeToo movement that has infused elections at all levels this year, it is far less than certain that the four Democratic council at-large nominees will include a woman, notwithstanding that past off-year primaries have produced an electorate estimated at 60 percent female. (The three departing at-large council members include term-limited Nancy Floreen.)
Noting that more than one-third of the Democratic at-large field—12 candidates in all—are women, Ewing observed: “The MeToo movement helps to bring people into the race in the first place, so that’s good—because we’ve never had very many women running. But when there are so many, it’s hard for the voter to decide, so it makes it more difficult for them. If they could have had fewer running, they actually would have been stronger.”
Balcombe, one of a couple of serious contenders not to tap into the public financing system, has the endorsement of the Post as well as a couple of business groups. An accountant by training, she has been targeting the business community with her background in budget and financial management.
Like Brooks, Ortman-Fouse, elected countywide to the school board in 2014, is said by sources to be moving up in recent polls. Many insiders say she would be a strong favorite if she had announced earlier for the council. Instead, she announced for re-election to the school board two weeks before the filing deadline, only to switch to the County Council contest a week and a half later. She quickly qualified for public financing, but had spent very little of it as of the latest financial disclosure reports released last week.
But Ortman-Fouse enjoys a core of supporters from her Board of Education term. And her regular presence on social media throughout her school board tenure has provided an additional following—to say nothing of giving her a head start over a crowded field of at-large contenders who have been vying for social media attention in recent months.
Both male and female candidates could benefit to the degree that identity politics plays a role in Tuesday’s results. Glass could become the first openly gay member of the council—or among the first two. (Another openly gay contender, former Kensington mayor Pete Fosselman, is vying for the District 1 seat Tuesday).
In terms of racial and ethnic identity, both Brooks and Jawando are African-American: Only one African-American candidate, Leggett, previously has been elected to office countywide. Albornoz would add another Hispanic-American to the council in a county where 20 percent of residents are currently of Hispanic origin. At present, there is just one Hispanic-American on the council—District 4 council member Nancy Navarro, a heavy favorite to win re-election.
Hoan Dang of Wheaton, a federal contractor who was born in Vietnam, is vying to be the first Asian-American ever elected to the council. Dang, who ranks among the top five fundraisers in the at-large race, has Leggett’s endorsement. His candidacy may be a test of the extent to which the county’s Asian-American population has registered in the Democratic Party; a significant number are believed to have gravitated to the Republican Party or remained unaffiliated.
Another candidate of Asian-American descent, Ashwani Jain, joined Balcombe in opting to raise money privately: With nearly $187,000, he outraised her by more than $20,000. Like Dang, Jain—whose parents are Indian-American—has been in the second-tier of candidates in private polling; at 29, he has future electoral opportunities if he doesn’t make it this year.
Another candidate who relied on private funding, veteran Del. Charles Barkley of Germantown, was seen as a major contender when the campaign began—but is now rarely mentioned. While he reported the largest campaign treasury of any candidate, $232,000, in January, he spent very little until mid-May, notwithstanding that he lacked widespread name recognition outside his base in legislative District 39.
Barkley was said by acquaintances to have been deeply upset by allegations—raised during this past spring’s General Assembly session by former lobbyist Sara Love, now a candidate for delegate in District 16—of “inappropriate” contact with her. The five-term delegate denied any wrongdoing, but subsequently tamped down his efforts in terms of the County Council campaign. However, he last week reported spending nearly $81,000 in less than a month prior to June 10. He is also said by sources to have ramped up his appearances at political events in recent weeks—including a recent luncheon of the county Woman’s Democratic Club.
Ewing suggested that, given the crowded field, the outcome may be affected significantly by in-person campaigning. “In my opinion, the ones who are actually getting out there and meeting with the people—being at events and doing the one-on-ones—should have the most powerful impact,” she said. “That’s what people are going to remember. They’re not going to remember all the social media stuff, because there’s so much of it out there.”
For his part, Silverman said the ability of candidates to influence overwhelmed voters as they enter the polling places Tuesday will be limited.
“I think the days of being able to influence somebody at the polls are gone,” he said. “If you’re an average voter, you’re either going to take all the paper and find your way to the nearest recycle bin at your polling place—or you’re going to take nothing.”
Advised Silverman: “If I were an at-large candidate in a field of 33, I would have somebody at the polling place with a huge sign that said ‘Steve Silverman, endorsed by … .’ That might be the most that anybody is going to see.”