2022 | Politics

Developer-backed super PAC pours big money into Montgomery County elections

Progressives for Progress still has $250,000 to spend in lead-up to the primary

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A political advertisement paid for by Progressives for Progress -- a new developer-funded super PAC in Montgomery County.

Photo by Dan Schere

A new developer-funded super PAC is dumping money into Montgomery County’s executive and council races — and still had nearly $250,000 in cash to spend just weeks ahead of the primary election.

The group, Progressives for Progress, is backing entrepreneur David Blair in his bid to unseat incumbent County Executive Marc Elrich, whose critics have accused him of stymieing much-needed housing development.

The political action committee has also declared support for council candidates Brian Anleu, Marilyn Balcombe, Natali Fani-González, Amy Ginsburg, Scott Goldberg and Dawn Luedtke and for incumbent council members Gabe Albornoz, Andrew Friedson, Evan Glass, Tom Hucker  and Sidney Katz.

Charles K. Nulsen III, chairman of Progressives for Progress, said the group is promoting a slate of candidates to correct what he calls a “dysfunctional” county government.

“We are progressive Democrats who are long-term investors in the county and have a long-term interest in the well-being of the county,” said Nulsen, the owner of the Bethesda-based development firm Washington Property Co. 

Elrich, on the other hand, contends the group represents developers intent on offloading the cost of roads, schools and other public facilities needed to support continued growth in the county. And with moneyed development interests driving the group, he says, using the word “progressive” in the PAC’s title is downright misleading.

“It’s really a shame there’s not a patent or license on that word, because there’s not a progressive bone in Charlie’s body,” Elrich said of Nulsen. “Hopefully, residents in this county are smart enough to recognize a con job when they see it.”

Still, Elrich acknowledged he’s worried about the PAC’s spending power going into the July 19 election, which pits him against Blair and County Council Member Hans Riemer in the Democratic primary.

Though it’s only existed since April 29, Progressives for Progress has already raked in roughly $528,000, according to the PAC’s campaign finance reports. In the last three weeks alone, the group has accepted more than $300,000 from about 30 donors, most of them from the real estate and development industry.

Political action committees such as Progressives for Progress are not bound by the $6,000 donation cap that applies to candidate committees and can collect as much money as individuals, unions and corporations are willing to supply. 

And Progressives for Progress is capitalizing on this ability, with its biggest donor, Willco Construction Co., giving the group $50,000 in a single check. 

So far, the PAC has poured its money primarily into mailers, spending more than $175,000 on targeted communications, according to a campaign finance report filed Tuesday. It has also spent more than $65,000 on billboards and yard signs and about $38,000 on polling. 

PAC flyers trumpet the group’s preferred slate of candidates as the “team for progress.” The mailers contend that these candidates are most capable of drawing economic opportunity into the county and increasing affordable housing options. 

By contrast, Nulsen says, Elrich is “anti-everything” and has blocked the expansion of housing options that low- and moderate-income families can afford. Most recently, Elrich has been championing a rent control measure that Nulsen argues would discourage investors from pursuing development opportunities in the county. 

“It’s failed policy,” Nulsen said. “It’s like asking somebody: If we control the price of milk, do you think we will sell more milk? No, the milk distributors will deliver less milk.”

The PAC leader added that Blair, with his extensive business experience, has the executive skills to run a government of Montgomery County’s size. This year’s county executive election is a rematch between Elrich and Blair, who were separated by just 77 votes in the 2018 Democratic primary.

Elrich argues he’s consistently supported expanding affordable housing in the county — and that what developers really want is to stop paying their fair share for public facilities such as roads, schools and water and sewer infrastructure. 

“And of course, in Montgomery County, if it’s not paid for by them, if we’re going to build the infrastructure we need, it has to be shifted on the backs of taxpayers,” Elrich said.

During the last county executive race in 2018, Nulsen helped form a super PAC in support of former County Council member Nancy Floreen as she ran an independent campaign against Elrich and Republican Robin Ficker in the general election. Despite backing from the County Above Party PAC, Floreen lost the race to Elrich.

Nulsen is also the co-founder of Empower Montgomery, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that advocates for expanding economic opportunity in the county. 

During the 2018 county executive race, Bethesda Beat reported that Blair was at one point listed as a co-founder of Empower Montgomery but that his name was later removed from the group’s website. Blair told the Beat that while he contributed money to Empower Montgomery and spent time with its members, he didn’t consider himself a co-founder of the group.

Maryland Matters first reported the existence of the super PAC