Private fundraising first defeats the purpose of public funding candidates
As a longtime resident and taxpayer of Montgomery County, I am writing to express my concern over statements by county executive candidate Tom Hucker that he may move to the county’s public finance system after he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly from PACs, corporations, and wealthy donors, outside of the public. system and system boundaries.
Hucker floated this idea of possibly moving to public funding on “The Politics Hour With Kojo Nnamdi” on WAMU in November (from 41.30 p.m.), in Bethesda Beat stories, and in a written response to a question posed during an applicant forum.
The county council created the public financing system for applicants who agree to reject company and PAC money and limit individual contributions to a maximum of $250. For every dollar of authorized individual contributions, the county is matching generous taxpayer dollars, up to a total of $750,000 for county executive candidates.
The purpose of the law is to allow ordinary people to run on equal footing with well-funded candidates who so often have a disproportionate vote.
I can’t understand how county voters or council intended to allow candidates to collect large donations from wealthy corporations and individuals and then go through the public finance system and receive the money from taxpayers. Nonetheless, it appears to be Hucker’s plan.
To allow this would run counter to Parliament’s clear intent to level the playing field, misuse taxpayers’ money and create an unfair disadvantage for those who follow the rules of public finance throughout along the process.
Public funding is for applicants who reject PAC and corporate donations. This is clear from the legislative history.
For the 12 months ending in January 2022, Hucker raised almost $200,000 before deciding whether or not to use the public finance system. (The January 2022 Nominating Committee Report is available at Maryland campaign finance website under “Hucker, Tom Friends of”.)
The bulk of those dollars would be barred from public funding — from corporations, the real estate industry, and some wealthy donors writing checks for up to $6,000, for example.
In fact, only about 23% of the total dollars raised by Hucker over the past year would have been allowed under the donation limits in place for the public finance system.
In the interest of disclosure, I donated $250 to Hucker’s campaign in February 2021 when I believed he was running for re-election to county council. When he decided to run for county executive, I asked him to repay my donation and he did.
In January 2022, I donated $250 to Council Member Hans Riemer’s campaign for county executive. It uses the public financing system.
I also donated $150 to Marc Elrich’s first county leadership campaign in 2018. He was also using public funding in that race and is doing so in this year’s race.
To be clear, I am not implying that Hucker acted illegally in collecting these donations, as he was not operating within the public finance system. But having built up a war chest with special interest money that the public finance system prohibits, he shouldn’t be allowed to tip and collect taxpayers’ money.
An article published by the Brennan Center for Justice says it well: “Public funding is the most powerful reform available to address the troubling trends of big money in politics. It elevates the voices of ordinary people and frees candidates from dependence on wealthy special interests.
There is a real risk of diminished public support for our county’s public finance system when voters realize that their tax dollars are being used to fill campaign coffers built with large corporate donations, PACs and wealthy individuals.
And after? Should candidates who max out in the public finance system give up and start collecting “gross” contributions? It will turn this program — a national model when it was enacted — into a meaningless slush fund.
Hucker should publicly disavow any plans to move to public funding after raising significant funds outside of the public funding system.
If allowed, the county council must act now to change the law. The council must protect the integrity of this system or abolish it as a sham. There are too many issues to do otherwise.
Cheryl Gannon lives in Silver Spring. She is a retired professional lobbyist and director of the PAC and served as Montgomery County Democratic Precinct President. She does not work on any candidate’s campaign.
Note from editor Andy Schotz: Bethesda Beat invited Hucker to respond to Gannon’s criticisms and explain his reasoning, through an addendum to his article. In a telephone conversation, I summarized for Hucker the substance of Gannon’s comments. Instead, Hucker’s campaign manager Dave Kunes responded on his behalf. Kunes wrote in an email:
“Public funding is an important option for applicants. We have public funding in Montgomery County in part because Tom Hucker led a campaign to pass state legislation that led to local public funding many years ago. And Tom always voted to fund our County Public Funding Act.
“However, our county law has a significant flaw. Many other state funding laws include a trigger that allows state-funded applicants to qualify for additional funds if they face a wealthy self-funding opponent. Our law is flawed because it does not.
“After 20 years of community organizing and public service in Montgomery County, Tom has the broadest coalition of grassroots supporters behind him. But he does not have the formidable resources of his adversaries in this race. Mr Blair has several millions of his own wealth which he spent in a previous campaign and which he expects to spend this year. Mr. Elrich has a multimillion-dollar public relations operation funded by county taxes that promotes all of his day-to-day activities to the media and public.
“We will make a decision about which path gives our campaign the best chance of winning closer to the deadline. Like any campaign, it is our responsibility to our supporters. We are proud of all the support we have garnered, including many small business owners, civic association leaders, religious leaders, teachers, healthcare workers and many others who all agree – we must get our schools out of the crisis, revive our economy, create safe housing and get public transport moving.
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