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Voter Asks Board of Elections To Review Connections Between Blair and Developer-Funded Group Empower Montgomery

Montgomery County executive candidate was previously listed as a co-founder of the group, but his campaign called the allegations 'meritless'

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Montgomery County executive candidate David Blair

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A Silver Spring resident is asking the State Board of Elections to review potential coordination between Montgomery County executive candidate David Blair and the developer-funded nonprofit Empower Montgomery.

In a letter sent Monday, Brian Kildee asked the board to look into connections between Blair and Empower Montgomery after the nonprofit sent a mailer to county residents ranking county executive candidates based on their responses to economic issues the group has focused on.

The mailer gave Blair a score of 9 and highlighted the score in green due to his support for funding projects such as the M83 highway and reducing the county energy tax and for saying he wouldn’t have supported the 8.7 percent property tax increase approved by the County Council in 2016.

Nonprofit 501(c)(4)s such as Empower Montgomery are tax-exempt and may only participate in partisan political activity as a secondary activity, according to federal guidelines. Maryland campaign finance law prohibits candidates from directly coordinating with outside groups to their benefit.

Jared DeMarinis, director of the board’s campaign finance division, said in an email Wednesday the board received the complaint.

Blair’s score listed on Empower Montgomery’s mailer was tied with one of his Democratic opponents, state Del. Bill Frick (D-Bethesda), but another opponent, Rose Krasnow, the former deputy director of the county’s planning department, scored higher with an 11.

Meanwhile, the council members running for county executive all scored lower. Roger Berliner received a 6, George Leventhal a 3 and Marc Elrich a -5. Their names were highlighted in yellow or red on the mailer.

Kildee, who said he has donated $250 to Frick’s campaign, alleged in his letter that the scoring system discouraged voters from supporting candidates who received low rankings. His letter noted that Blair was formerly listed as a co-founder of the Empower Montgomery on its website and his name and signature was included on a 2016 mailer the nonprofit sent to voters encouraging them to vote in that election.

Laura Evans Manatos, a spokeswoman for Blair, dismissed the idea in a Wednesday email to Bethesda Beat that the candidate and nonprofit were coordinating.

“The complaint is meritless and completely bizarre,” Manatos wrote. “It claims that David’s campaign coordinated a mailing that rated another candidate ahead of him. This is the same crowd that’s been attacking David since he got into the race. We’re going to stay focused on the issues that matter and moving Montgomery County forward.”

She added that Blair has been “taking attacks from the majority of his opponents including Bill Frick and his supporters.” Blair’s campaign has also been the subject of criticisms and attacks from the liberal advocacy group Progressive Maryland and in an ad being run by Berliner’s campaign that compares Blair to Donald Trump.

Kildee said in a Tuesday interview with Bethesda Beat that it’s irrelevant that Krasnow scored higher on the group’s survey.

“The only score that’s important is David Blair’s because he helped found the organization that paid for the mailer that promotes his candidacy by giving him a 9 and highlighting his name in green,” Kildee said.

Charlie Nulsen, Empower Montgomery’s founder and the president of the developer Washington Property Co., said Wednesday he had not received notice from the Board of Elections regarding the complaint.

“I know there is zero coordination,” Nulsen said, adding that he believes the complaint “really has no facts in it.”

Blair’s name was previously listed on Empower Montgomery’s website as a co-founder along with Nulsen, former council member Steve Silverman and Donohoe Cos. President and CEO Chris Bruch. Their names were later removed from the website, which now lists an advisory committee comprised of Nulsen and three women who own local small businesses.

Blair told Bethesda Beat in November when he first launched his campaign that he didn’t consider himself a co-founder of the group. At the time, he said he previously contributed money to the group and spent time with its members.

Manatos declined to say how much Blair contributed to Empower Montgomery or why his name and signature appeared on the 2016 mailer from the group.

Nulsen said Blair previously was among 30 businessmen who supported the nonprofit financially in 2016. He also declined to say how much Blair donated.

“He had concerns over the business climate, which was the reason for Empower Montgomery being established,” Nulsen said. “His involvement ended in 2016 … his support was not extraordinary compared to anyone else’s.”

Nulsen added the group is not backing any specific candidate in the 2018 county executive race.

Empower Montgomery has played an outsize role in this year’s election. The group funded a study by the Sage Policy Group that described the county’s economy as “in a downward fiscal spiral” and contended the way to correct it is by creating a pro-business attitude in county government, developing more housing stock and increasing support for economic development programs.

That study was later cited heavily by The Washington Post when it endorsed David Blair for Montgomery County executive. After linking to a report about the Empower Montgomery-funded study and summarizing it, the Post’s editorial board wrote, “The central question is which of the candidates for county executive is most capable of juicing a sluggish commercial environment …” and answered the question by endorsing Blair.

Blair has since used the paper’s endorsement in nearly all of his television advertising, mailers and yard signs to promote his candidacy.

However, county officials, including County Executive Ike Leggett, pushed back against the study by saying it cherry-picked certain statistics to paint a bleak picture of the county’s economy. Leggett instead pointed to the county’s AAA bond rating, low unemployment and similar office vacancy rates to neighboring jurisdictions as signs that the local economy is healthy.

“The purpose of the report is to frighten voters into the belief that there is a crisis in our local economy,” Leggett said in April. He added that he believed Empower Montgomery was trying to convince voters to “more fully embrace business-oriented candidates” in Tuesday’s primary.

“Yes, the economic performance of Montgomery County has become an issue in this election as it should be,” Nulsen said about the response to the study.

Empower Montgomery’s 2016 Form 990 filed with the IRS lists Nulsen, Bruch, Minkoff Development Corp. President Paul Chod, former Southern Management Corp. Chairman David Hillman and Miller & Long Construction CEO Brett McMahon as among its officers. The nonprofit reported taking in $120,000 that year.

Blair was not listed as an officer in the group’s 2014, 2015 or 2016 IRS filings reviewed by Bethesda Beat.

Empower Montgomery filed a spending report with the Maryland Board of Elections last week that noted it received $95,000 in contributions this election cycle for election-related activities and spent about $49,000 on mailers and postage.

The contributions came almost exclusively from developers, according to the report. Potomac-based Willco contributed $40,000 directly or through LLCs and other corporate entities listed at its address. North Bethesda-based Guardian Realty Management contributed $10,000 and Southern Management Co. of Vienna contributed $20,000.

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