UPDATED – 12:30 p.m. – It’s open season in Montgomery County politics and the at-large County Council race is already crowded.
A little less than a year from the June 26 primary, at least 20 candidates have either filed to run or told Bethesda Beat they are considering running.
The prospective and announced candidate list includes incumbent council member Hans Riemer, District 39 Del. Charlie Barkley, Gaithersburg City Council member Ryan Spiegel, county recreation director Gabriel Albornoz, former interim County Council member Cherri Branson, Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce President Marilyn Balcombe, former Obama administration staffer Will Jawando, former County Council spokesman Neil Greenberger and possibly two Board of Education members.
There are also about a dozen political newcomers from the ranks of community and political activists who believe their messages will attract a political base in the county.
Three factors have helped turn next year’s election into a horse race. In November, voters approved term limits that will force incumbent council members Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal from their long-held seats and leave three of the four countywide council seats open.
Also, the county’s new public election financing system, which provides county money to candidates who qualify and commit to only accepting small dollar contributions, has provided an impetus for political newcomers who may not have been able to compete financially otherwise against better-funded candidates.
Lastly, two district council members—Tom Hucker and Craig Rice—who could have entered the at-large race as a way to raise their profiles countywide have said they’ll run for re-election in their districts. Hucker has already filed with the state’s Board of Elections to run in Silver Spring-based District 5 while Rice said he’ll run to retain the District 2 seat representing Germantown and Clarksburg that he’s occupied since 2010.
The odds-on favorite for one of the four at-large seats up for grabs is Riemer, who is running for what would be his third and last term on the council after first being elected in 2010. Riemer said in a June interview he’ll continue to focus on promoting smart growth, transportation choices and access to early childhood education. However, he’ll likely have to defend his decision to join his council colleagues in raising property taxes by 8.7 percent in 2016—a move that many political observers in the county believe contributed to the fact that nearly 70 percent of voters favored terms limits that November.
Due to county charter limits, the council had to vote unanimously to pass the tax increase, meaning any council member could have prevented it by opposing the move. But the council said at the time the funds were needed to help Montgomery County Public Schools deal with school overcrowding and increasing class sizes.
“I think that we’ve got to continue to do what we need to do to make sure our county school system is everything our residents want it to be,” Riemer said. “I don’t shy away from doing what it takes to reduce class size.”
When asked whether he’d support raising property taxes again, Riemer responded, “I hope it’s not necessary.”
At least one Democratic candidate— Greenberger, the former council spokesman—already has pledged he will not raise taxes if elected.
“Most people that run for office in America can only promise things,” Greenberger said in a June interview. “Montgomery County is one of the few, if only places, where someone running for office can guarantee something … I will pledge during my first four years on the council that the county will not exceed the property tax charter limit.”
Greenberger’s pledge could separate him from other Democratic candidates who are pursuing the office—many of whom have pledged to protect the environment, improve the school system and kick-start the local economy. But Greenberger’s campaign got off to an unusual start when he told the county-funded media outlet Montgomery Community Media that he would stay in his job as council spokesman while he ran. As conflict of interest questions were beginning to be raised by other candidates, Greenberger requested and received a transfer to the county’s Public Information Office.
For other candidates, the race is just beginning as they prepare to launch their campaigns and build their profile countywide.
Gabriel Albornoz, left, Cherri Branson, center left, Will Jawando, center right, Marilyn Balcombe, right
Albornoz, director of the Montgomery County Department of Recreation, said he’s moving closer to beginning his campaign.
“I am forming a campaign committee and intend to file in August,” the Kensington resident said Thursday. “I think public office is one of the best ways to impact change. I believe with my professional and personal experiences that I’ll add value and help provide bridges to our different communities.”
Albornoz is politically connected in the county—he served as chair of the county’s Democratic Central Committee for two years from 2012 to 2014.
Branson, a Silver Spring resident, served on the council for a little less than a year from January to December 2014 after beating out 18 other applicants to be appointed to the legislative body when Valerie Ervin stepped down from her District 5 seat. Branson said Friday she plans to formally announce her run for an at-large seat in September. Branson is the director of the county's Office of Procurement, a position she was appointed to by County Executive Ike Leggett. She said she will use nights and weekends to work on her campaign while remaining in the role.
The former Congressional staffer and general counsel to Democratic staff on the House Committee on Homeland Security said her time on the council gives her experience many other candidates don't have.
"I can hit the ground running because I already understand the County Council process and procedures," Branson said.
Jawando, a former Obama administration staffer and Silver Spring resident, previously ran unsuccessful campaigns in the Democratic primary races for Congress in 2016 and state delegate in 2014. He said Thursday he plans to officially launch his campaign in September and believes he could have tremendous impact as a council member, given the unstable federal political climate.
“I think the County Council is going to have a more important role,” Jawando said. “This County Council coming in will have to guide us through tumultuous times and into the future.”
Balcombe, a Germantown resident and Democrat, has spent 12 years as the CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce. She has not formally filed to run for an at-large seat, but told Bethesda Beat she’s “definitely running.”
She said she’ll focus on transportation and workforce development during her campaign as well as the needs of upcounty residents.
Ryan Spiegel, left, Charles Barkley, center, Evan Glass, right
Spiegel, a Democrat, who has served on the Gaithersburg City Council for 10 years, said he’s “seriously considering” entering the at-large race.
“I think I bring a lot to the table in a crowded field,” Spiegel said. “I would be one of the only candidates who will have prior elected experience. And I’ve done things the County Council does, such as land use, zoning and budgeting.”
Barkley, also of Germantown, is entering the race after serving 20 years as a Democratic delegate in Annapolis. A former Montgomery County middle school math teacher, Barkley said he plans to focus on education and transportation issues, such as fixing congestion on I-270. He added he believes his legislative experience will be an asset on a council that will include at least four new members.
Barkley also has a campaign war chest that amounted to just over $205,000 in January, according to state campaign financing data.
“I have name recognition and a little money in the bank,” Barkley said in an interview last month. “I think that puts me in a good spot.”
Evan Glass, executive director of the youth media afterschool program Gandhi Brigade, filed documents last week to set up a public financing committee to start raising funds in the county’s public financing system for an at-large council race. The Silver Spring resident and former CNN producer lost the 2014 Democratic primary for the Silver Spring-based District 5 council seat by about 200 votes to current council member Tom Hucker.
Danielle Meitiv, left, Bill Conway, center, Seth Grimes, right
Political newcomers include Danielle Meitiv, the Silver Spring mother who generated headlines over her free-range parenting style. She has formally filed to run for an at-large seat. She told Bethesda Beat last month she would support a $15 per hour minimum wage, free education for pre-kindergarten through college and zero-waste recycling policies. She said she learned how out of touch local government can be after feuding with Child Protective Services about her two young children who were picked up by police while walking alone in Silver Spring.
“I want to restore faith in local government,” Meitiv said.
Former attorney Bill Conway, a Potomac resident who announced earlier this month he hit the minimum fundraising threshold to qualify for public funds under the county’s public financing system, is also running. He's advocating for issues such as a more balanced development process between growth and county infrastructure as well as protecting the environment. Conway, a former partner at Skadden, is married to Diana Conway, a longtime county political activist who is a past president of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, which works to promote and protect the county’s upcounty Agricultural Reserve, and who could help her husband generate upcounty support.
Seth Grimes, a longtime Democratic community activist and former Takoma Park City Council member, told Bethesda Beat Thursday that he plans to run in the race and will be formally filing soon.
Brandy Brooks, left, Chris Wilhelm, center, Hoan Dang, right
Other at-large Democratic candidates who have filed to create public financing committees include 30-year-old Northwood High School teacher Chris Wilhelm, who helped run Del. David Moon’s successful 2014 election campaign; 40-year-old Wheaton activist Brandy Brooks; and Hoan Dang, a Silver Spring federal contractor who served as chair of the Maryland Democratic Party’s Asian American & Pacific Islander Leadership Council for the past three years.
Other Democratic candidates who have filed for public financing committees or to formally run for an at-large seat on the council include Silver Spring residents Ukiah Busch and Romero Darwin; Richard Gottfried of Rockville; Germantown resident Lorna Forde; and Ron Colbert of Damascus.
So far, no Republican candidate has formally filed documents with the state board to indicate their intentions to run in the crowded race. However, local blogger Robert Dyer, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2010 and 2014, said in an email to Bethesda Beat Friday he's strongly considering entering the race, but has not made a final determination.
Tim Willard, 65, a Green Party candidate from Kensington, is the only non-Democrat to have filed to run at-large.
The National Archives retiree said he’d like to break up the all-Democrat council that has held power in the county for the past decade.
“We’ve had one-party rule in this county for years,” Willard said in an interview last month. “Despite the fact they’re all progressive Democrats, we’ve had growing disparity between the rich and poor in this county.”