2021 | Politics

Community groups decry use of their names on Empower Montgomery political ad

Flyer accuses Elrich of opposing fare-free RideOn bus service

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Ride-On bus, front

File photo

The League of Women Voters of Montgomery County is demanding that Empower Montgomery stop mailing a flyer that slams County Executive Marc Elrich and issue a “public correction” for using the league’s name on that ad.

Other nonprofits listed in that flyer have also taken issue with the Empower Montgomery flyer, saying they never gave permission to be listed in what some of them consider an “attack ad.”

In the flyer mailed to county households, Empower Montgomery accuses Elrich of opposing free rides on RideOn buses. It also asks readers to “join other organizations supporting free RideOn bus service.”

“Why does County Executive Marc Elrich oppose free RideOn bus service?” it asks.

In an interview, Elrich said he’d support free bus rides if there were federal funding, to avoid a financial loss for the county. Without that funding, he favors a reduced fare, but not eliminating the fare.

The organizations listed on the mailer — including the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Housing Unlimited, the Sierra Club, the Action Committee for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth — said they were unaware they would be listed on the flyer as allies of Empower Montgomery in the campaign for free buses and didn’t give permission.

They said that as nonprofits with 501(c)3 tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, they are barred from promoting or opposing political candidates. They are instead limited to promoting or opposing issues.

Nancy Bliss and Vicky Strella, co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, sent an email to Empower Montgomery — with copies to Elrich and the Montgomery County Council — protesting the use of the league’s name. They said it “could imply that we endorse the tone and approach the mailer takes toward the County Executive.”

“We therefore request that Empower Montgomery cease distributing the flyers online or in hardcopy, remove all electronic versions including web and social media, and issue a public correction indicating and correcting the error,” the league’s email said.

Charles Nulsen, the founder of Empower Montgomery, said in an interview that the group’s characterization of the flyer as an attack ad “is not an accurate portrayal.”

He said the flyer was “not political,” but instead “a call to action” for county residents to urge Elrich to make RideOn buses fare-free.

The $2 fare on the buses were suspended in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic last year and is expected to return in January.

The Empower Montgomery ad says Elrich must “halt his proposed price hike.” Although Elrich does not support free fares, he does favor cutting the fare in half — from $2 to $1 — when fares resume.

Nulsen is a political supporter of David Blair, who is challenging Elrich in a Democratic primary for the county executive’s job. Council Members Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker also are in the race.

Nulsen, the president of a local commercial real estate company, said he plans to hold a fundraiser for Blair next month. According to the latest filings available at the IRS, the other officers and directors of Empower Montgomery are developers and large contractors.

As a 501(c)4 nonprofit, Empower Montgomery may participate in partisan political activity only as a secondary activity.

Although Blair’s name was once listed on Empower Montgomery’s website as a co-founder with Nulsen, Blair has said that wasn’t true, although he is a former member and has donated money to the organization.

Nulsen said the organizations listed in the mailer share Empower Montgomery’s belief that RideOn buses should remain free.

Some of those organizations, including the Action Committee for Transit, belong to a group called the Montgomery Better Buses campaign that, among other things, supports free RideOn rides.

But, like the League of Women Voters, those organization say they advocate, but are not involved in political activities and that the mailer crossed the line.

A flyer mailed by Empower Montgomery

“They never asked if they could use our name in what was plainly an attack ad,” said James Hedrik, a board member of the Action Committee for Transit.

Jane Lyons of the Coalition for Smarter Growth said, “We’re not happy to see that they used our name without our consent, especially since we are a nonprofit.”

Shruti Bhatnagar, chair of the Sierra Club Montgomery County, said, “The Sierra Club did not give permission for its name to be listed.”

And Abe Schuchman, CEO of Housing Unlimited, said, “We did not authorize our name to be listed and we will be communicating this to Empower Montgomery.”

Elrich said bus fares in the county were eliminated because the federal government created a fund for state and local governments to be reimbursed for pandemic-related expenses.

He said the RideOn bus service with fares, after expenses, brings the county about $20.5 million a year.

“We’d be happy to continue (with free fares) if we keep getting federal money,” Elrich said.

Without it, he has proposed that fares be reinstated in January, but cut in half to $1 for individual rides and from $45 to $22.50 for monthly passes.

Empower Montgomery has also booked a RideOn ad with digital outlets, including Bethesda Beat. The ad on Bethesda Beat, however, does not reference the other nonprofits.