Public Campaign Financing Architect Says It Worked in 2018

Nine candidates in executive, council races tapped into fund

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A leading force behind the public campaign financing law that took effect in the 2018 election cycle says the system yielded the desired goal of getting big money out of politics at the county level.

“If the question is, do I think it was successful, in a word ‘yes,’” said former Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews, who advocated for reforms.

A final report on the program’s use last year, released earlier this month, found that nine candidates in three general election races tapped the fund and received more than $1 million.

Montgomery County is one of three counties in the state to allow public financing in local elections. Howard County has passed a public financing law and Prince George’s County approved the practice this past fall.

The program makes candidates for county executive eligible for up to $750,000 and those running for County Council can get as much as $250,000 for at-large seats and $125,000 for district seats. Candidates accepting the public funds agree to not take PAC or special-interest money, limit individual donations to $150 or less and raise a threshold amount.

Unused funds must be returned at the end of the election cycle. According to the final public financing report, $87,687 was returned, with County Executive Marc Elrich giving back $65,513 of the $750,000 he received.

Other candidates who used public financing included Republican Robin Ficker, who ran for county executive, and at-large council candidates Hans Riemer, Evan Glass, Will Jawando and Gabe Albornoz, all Democrats who were elected Nov. 6.

There were 33 Democrats in the at-large council primary, a testament to the public financing program’s strength, Andrews said.

“I think the large number of candidates running was a combination of term limits and public financing at the same time,” he said.

Despite the fact that a dozen of the 33 at-large candidates were women, and did not advance past the primary, Andrews said he remains optimistic.

“If you look at the election for school board, female candidates did very well, and also in the judicial races,” he said.

Not all in the county are satisfied. Former County council member George Leventhal, who lost to Elrich in the county executive primary, wrote an opinion column in the The Washington Post last summer that noted that most of the county executive candidates who used public financing did not receive the full $750,000 in matching funds because of the $150 contribution limit for individuals.

“This puts a public-financing nominee who faces a well-funded general-election opponent at a tremendous disadvantage. A publicly financed nominee should be able to start with a clean slate after the primary to allow previous donors to contribute again in the general election,” he wrote.

Leventhal, who used public financing during the primary, wrote that the system should be reformed to include less paperwork and fewer fundraising constraints. Doing so, he argued, would help diversify the field of candidates.

Andrews, who now works in the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, said the county has made progress, but shouldn’t be satisfied when it comes to election reform.

“The best solution is to open up political primaries to more voters,” he said.

Andrews added that he also plans to advocate for ranked-choice voting, which is currently being debated in the state legislature, and gerrymandering reform, which will soon be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court will decide whether Maryland must redraw the Sixth Congressional District prior to the 2020 elections, as mandated by a lower court in response to a complaint from Republican voters that the district incorporates too much of Democratic Montgomery County.

The ranked choice voting method, if approved, would allow voters to mark their ballot by ranking the candidates in order of preference, with the candidates receiving the highest number of “first choices” being declared the winner.

“I think it [public financing] achieved what it can do. But it can’t address the full need for reform, which includes open primaries and gerrymandering. Those things are needed in combination to create a system that will be most responsive,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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