Last year’s Democratic primary for four at-large seats on the Montgomery County Council attracted a record 33 candidates.
The size of the field was attributed, in part, to the first year of the county’s public financing system, which allows candidates to receive matching contributions from the county based on the smaller private donations they collect.
For the 2018 primary and general elections, 68 candidates tapped into the program and spent $5.2 million in public funds.
At a public forum Tuesday night to review the program, which is being watched by other counties as a model for a public finance system in local races, several former candidates called for reforms in technical aspects of the program.
The main issue raised was the “one bite at the apple rule” which gave candidates one chance to submit their certified contributions to the State Board of Elections to meet the $20,000 qualifying threshold necessary to receive matching funds.
“There wasn’t any way to know in advance what was going to happen with that rule,” said Pamela Coukos, the campaign manager for Shruti Bhatnagar’s at-large council campaign.
Bhatnagar was one of five candidates in the race determined to be ineligible for public financing because a few of their contributions couldn’t be certified. She ended up finishing with 2.1 percent of the vote, and said that the holdup in trying to determine whether she qualified for public financing was costly.
“Not receiving the matching funds put me at a great disadvantage and damaged the possibility of having another woman of color on the county council,” Bhatnagar said.
Other candidates who testified pointed to the lack of women and people of color who were elected to the council.
Brandy Brooks, who finished sixth in the at-large race, said she was able to raise $34,000 from more than 700 donors, but that even raising $150 is a “daunting barrier” for minority populations who struggle simply to make a down payment on a house.
Candidates using public financing were limited to raising $150 from individuals in order to level the playing field by preventing wealthy donors from influencing the electoral process. Candidates for County Council and County Executive were allowed to use the system, with council at-large candidates being allowed up to $250,000 in matching funds, and $750,000 for executive candidates.
“Representation matters. People need to be able to see folks who look like them and who see the struggles every day,” Brooks said.
Council member Will Jawando, who used public funds in his successful bid, said after the meeting that he felt badly about Bhatnagar’s campaign
“When you submitted that into the system, and some of your contributions didn’t match up, you were then rejected and could not apply again,” he said.
Jawando said that the council’s government operations committee will be reviewing the rules of the public financing system, with the goal of making changes before the 2022 election cycle, when the council is up for re-election.
Other suggestions at included moving the filing deadline to a later date for public financing, which came from former council member Phil Andrews, who helped champion local public financing.
Sharon Cohen, the vice chairwoman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, also suggested that contributions be limited to registered voters in order to prevent “unscrupulous individuals” from donating to campaigns.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org