The contrast could hardly be greater. On the border of the world's largest swamp of special interest money, Maryland's first local election with publicly funded candidates is underway in Montgomery County.
Candidates financed by the people are more likely to be responsive to the people. If taxpayers don't pay for campaigns, the rich and special interests will — and public policy will reflect it. For many years, development interests and public employee unions have provided very large campaign donations to many successful candidates for the Montgomery County Council and county executive position. Given the council's jurisdiction over master plans and zoning, and the role of the executive in negotiating labor contracts and the council's required approval of them — decisions that drive tax rates for years and land use for decades — the public needs confidence that big campaign contributions aren't influencing public policy decisions, and candidates need a way to run competitive campaigns without special interest money.
Montgomery's public financing system will amplify the voices of residents and dampen the influence of well-heeled interest groups. It will intensify competition by enabling more candidates to run viable grassroots campaigns and increase residents' electoral participation. This should encourage other Maryland jurisdictions — particularly Howard County, where voters approved the idea in 2016 — to move forward with local public financing systems that county executive and county council candidates could opt into in the 2022 elections.
Montgomery County Council and executive candidates who adhere to a $150 contribution limit, attain a threshold of such donations from county residents and abstain from contributions from political action committees (PACs), unions, corporations and political parties can receive public funds. To qualify, a candidate for a council district seat (which represents about 200,000 people) must raise $10,000 from at least 125 county residents. An at-large council candidate must raise $20,000 from 250 residents, and an executive candidate must raise $40,000 from 500 residents.
A candidate in a contested primary or general election for a district seat may receive up to $125,000 of public funding in each. At-large candidates may receive up to $250,000, and executive candidates up to $750,000. Candidates can't transfer funds to other candidates and must return unspent funds to the county.
Montgomery's public funding system provides the nation's strongest incentives for candidates to seek small donations from many constituents and for residents to contribute. Qualifying council candidates receive four dollars of public funds for each dollar of the first $50 donated by a county resident, making it worth $250. A second $50 from the same resident is matched three-to-one, and a third $50 matched two-to-one, making a $150 contribution worth $600. Executive candidates receive six dollars of public funding for each dollar of the first $50 contributed by a resident. A second $50 from the same person is matched four-to-one, and a third $50 matched two-to-one, making a $150 contribution worth $750.
Notably, Montgomery's system doesn't limit how much publicly funded candidates may raise from small donors in total and spend overall. This can help these candidates remain competitive when facing opponents who aren't participating in public funding and who, under state law, can accept $6,000 from each PAC, union, corporation and individual. And it can help them counter independent expenditures by special interests and unlimited spending by self-funding wealthy candidates who don't accept public funds. Under Montgomery's system, publicly funded candidates and their spouses can't give or loan their campaign more than $6,000 each.
Agreeing with the Public Election Fund Committee's recommendation, the Montgomery County Council has appropriated $11 million for the 2018 election, including $5 million last month. Already, 17 candidates for county council and executive — four current council members and 13 aspiring office-holders, including Democrats, Republicans and a Green Party candidate — have announced they'll seek public funding as of Friday.
With the Montgomery County executive and four incumbents on the nine-member council ineligible to seek re-election due to term limits, and with many of their would-be successors opting into public funding, big-money interests will have less influence over county officials and public policy after 2018. Public financing — along with the elimination of gerrymandering and closed primaries — is how to empower voters, reduce partisanship and drain the political swamp.
Phil Andrews (firstname.lastname@example.org) served on the Montgomery County Council from 1998-2014 and is a former executive director of Common Cause Maryland. He was the lead sponsor of Montgomery's public financing law.