2022 | Opinion

Opinion: Raising private money first defeats purpose of public financing for candidates

Hucker should not take taxpayer funding on top of corporate, PAC donations

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As a longtime Montgomery County resident and taxpayer, I write to express alarm about county executive candidate Tom Hucker’s statements that he might switch to the county’s public finance system after raising hundreds of thousands of dollars mostly from PACs, corporations and wealthy donors, outside the public system and the system’s limits.

Hucker has floated this idea of possibly switching to public financing on “The Politics Hour With Kojo Nnamdi” on WAMU in November (starting at 41:30), in Bethesda Beat stories and in a written response to a question posed during a candidate forum.

The County Council established the public financing system for candidates who agree to reject corporate and PAC money and limit individual contributions to not more than $250. For every dollar of permitted individual contributions, the county contributes a generous match of dollars from taxpayers, up to a total of $750,000 for county executive candidates.

The purpose of the law is to enable regular people to stand on equal footing with well-financed candidates who so often have a disproportionate voice.

I cannot fathom that it was the intention of county voters or the council to allow candidates to sweep up large donations from corporations and wealthy individuals, then switch to the public finance system and receive taxpayer dollars. Nevertheless, it appears that is Hucker’s plan.

Allowing this would fly in the face of the clear legislative intent to even the playing field, misuse taxpayer dollars and create an unfair disadvantage for those who follow the public finance rules throughout the process.

Public funding is for candidates who reject PAC and corporate donations. That is clear from the legislative history.

For the 12 months ending January 2022, Hucker raised nearly $200,000 before he will decide whether to use the public finance system. (The January 2022 candidate committee report can be found on Maryland’s campaign finance website under “Hucker, Tom Friends of.”)

The bulk of those dollars would be prohibited under public financing — from corporations, real estate industry, and some wealthy donors writing checks of up to $6,000, for example.

In fact, only about 23% of the total dollars Hucker raised over the past year would have been allowed under the donation limits in place for the public finance system.

In the interest of disclosure, I donated $250 to Hucker’s campaign in February 2021 when I thought he was running for re-election to the County Council. When he decided to run for county executive instead, I asked him to refund my donation and he did.

In January 2022, I donated $250 to Council Member Hans Riemer’s campaign for county executive. He is using the public financing system.

I also donated $150 to Marc Elrich’s first county executive campaign in 2018. He also was using public financing in that race and is doing so in this year’s race.

To be clear, I am not implying that Hucker acted unlawfully in collecting these donations, because he was not operating under the public finance system. But having built a war chest with special interest money that the public finance system prohibits, he should not be allowed to switch over and collect taxpayer dollars.

A piece posted by the Brennan Center for Justice says it well: “Public financing is the most powerful reform available to address the troubling trends of big money in politics. It lifts up the voices of regular people and frees candidates from dependence on wealthy special interests.”

There is a real risk of diminishing public support for our county’s public finance system when voters realize their tax dollars are being used to pad campaign coffers built with big donations from corporate entities, PACs, and wealthy individuals.

What’s next? Should the candidates who reach the max in the public finance system drop out and start collecting “big money” contributions? That will turn this program — a national model when it was enacted — into a meaningless slush fund.

Hucker should publicly disavow any plan to shift to public financing after having raised significant funds outside the public financing system.

If this is allowed, the County Council must act now to amend the law. The council must protect the integrity of this system or abolish it as a sham. There is too much at stake to do otherwise.

Cheryl Gannon lives in Silver Spring. She is a retired professional lobbyist and PAC director and was a Democratic precinct chair in Montgomery County. She is not working on the campaign of any candidates.

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Note from Managing Editor Andy Schotz: Bethesda Beat invited Hucker to respond to Gannon’s criticism and explain his reasoning, through an addendum to her piece. In a phone conversation, I summarized for Hucker the substance of Gannon’s comments. Instead, Hucker’s campaign manager, Dave Kunes, responded on his behalf. Kunes wrote in an email:

“Public financing is an important option for candidates. We have public financing in Montgomery County partly because Tom Hucker led a campaign to pass state legislation that led to local public financing many years ago. And Tom has always voted to fund our county public financing law.

“However, our county law has an important flaw. Many other public financing laws include a trigger that allows publicly financed candidates to qualify for additional funds if they face a self-financing wealthy opponent. Our law is flawed because it does not.

“After 20 years of community organizing and public service to Montgomery County, Tom has the broadest coalition of grassroots supporters behind him. But he doesn’t have the tremendous resources of his opponents in this race. Mr. Blair has many millions of his own wealth that he has spent in a previous campaign and expects to spend this year. Mr. Elrich has a multi-million-dollar public relations operation funded by county tax dollars that promotes all his daily activity to the media and the public.

“We will make a decision regarding which path gives our campaign the best chance of winning closer to the deadline. Like any campaign, that is our responsibility to our supporters. We’re proud of all the support we have gathered, including numerous small business owners, civic association leaders, faith leaders, teachers, health care workers and many others who all agree — we have to get our schools out of crisis, get our economy moving again, create safe housing and get transit moving.”

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