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Grass roots group eyes launch of 'citizen-funded' campaign system

A microcosm of the national conversation about the power of money in politics, pushed by the Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United decision in 2010, has made its way to Howard County's local elections.

Fair Elections Howard, a grass roots group formed by major advocacy organizations like Common Cause and Maryland Public Interest Research Group, is behind a community-wide push for a new publicly funded campaign system that matches small campaign donations using public funds and aims to limit the influence of special interest money.

"Corporate money plays too big a role on our election system. It determines who is able to run in office and sometimes who wins elections and ultimately the policies that are discussed," said Emily Scarr, executive director of Maryland PIRG.

In November, county voters will decide if they want the citizen-funded campaign system, which proponents say will boost the power of small, individual donations, encourage more candidates to run without worrying about raising major funds and encourage more transparency and accountability in local government.

The system would cost roughly $2.6 million for an election cycle with the maximum number of candidates running, according to estimates by Maryland PIRG. Candidates would be able to opt into the system.

Counties can choose a public funding option as part of a campaign finance reform bill that passed in 2013. Montgomery County is the first county in the state to adopt the new model, which is gaining traction in nearly two dozen states in the country.

The details of Howard's system have not been finalized but would be closely modeled after Montgomery County's system, which caps public contributions at $750,000 for county executive races and requires county executive candidates to raise $40,000 with at least 500 donations in order to qualify for public funds.

Although proponents said the system will benefit candidates from all parties, the measure has not drawn bipartisan support in the county.

The County Council sent the measure, proposed by Councilman Jon Weinstein and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, both Democrats, to the ballots with a 4-1 vote earlier this year. If passed in November, the system would take effect in the 2022 election cycle.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican who supported legislation for publicly funded campaigns during his time as a state senator, said he supports public financing for local systems only if the funds are from voluntary contributions.

"I strongly oppose using tax dollars to fund any political campaigns," Kittleman said.

Republican Councilman Greg Fox, who voted against the measure, said while he supports a publicly funded campaign system overall, the system should use voluntary contributions, not taxpayer dollars, in a dedicated fund.

Citizen-funded campaigns are a "misnomer," said Fox. "I would support a similarly designed program that was proportional in nature to the offices that would be included. However, they have left this open to be a taxpayer-funded initiative, not a citizen one."

Proponents of Fair Elections said the campaign touches on a non-partisan issue.

"Partisan politics muddies the water. Whether we have a D or an R or an I at the end of our names shouldn't matter at all," said Dan Medinger, a volunteer involved in the campaign.

Weinstein, who proposed the initiative, said the issue of big money in politics has been "brewing for years in the county" and, ultimately, falls on voters to decide.

"I think many of us were hoping that the federal government would take this on. It then falls to us to evaluate," Weinstein said. "The Democrats on the council agreed to move this to the people to see what they think of it. We can't make it happen unless the people of Howard County agree it's an issue they want to address."

Concerns about the role of special interest money are real in Howard County, said Sue Geckle, who is leading the campaign's grass roots team.

"The perception is that the developers get what they want when they've donated," Geckle said. "It benefits [politicians] to not have that perception hanging over them."

Elections in Howard County are becoming increasingly more expensive across both parties, said Larry Stafford, exective director of Progressive Maryland, which is working on the campaign. 

"We need to incentivize campaigns to seek out smaller contributions instead of only focusing on those who give very large checks to campaigns; that increases accountability. Much more accountable to the people. That matters in terms of our policy," Stafford said.

Proponents like Medinger, who ran unsuccessfully for the District 9 state senate seat in the 2014 primary, said the system breaks a barrier that bars many local candidates from running: raising enough money.

"The fundraising side of running for office is a very daunting experience, not just for first-time candidates," Medinger said.

Weinstein said the measure boosts voters' participation in the electoral process, diversifies the range of candidates running and amplifies the voices of people by "eliminating large donations."

Publicly funded campaigns allow candidates to spend more time engaging citizens about real issues instead of raising money, proponents said.

Fair Elections Howard, which will officially launch in mid-September, hopes voters will adopt the system and show the county is "at the forefront of a movement to reclaim our democracy," Scarr said.

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