Opinion: Why Montgomery County’s Public Financing Program Did Not Work for Me

The deadline has passed for candidates for Montgomery County offices to qualify for matching funds under the county’s new public financing system. I am one of 33 candidates seeking four Democratic nominations for at-large seats on the county council. I believe the system has merit, but it did not work for me — and numerous other candidates who intended to qualify.
However, I am still confident I will win a seat without public financing — just as candidates have been doing in Montgomery County for the past five decades.
In the end, the only penalty for not qualifying is, well, no penalty. Non-qualifiers are now free to use traditional financing methods through the June 26 primary.
 This works out just fine for me. Bloggers who immediately wrote off non-qualifiers as having little chance to win are foolish. How the heck did they think people were doing it in all of those previous county elections? Neil H. Greenberger The campaign finance system required candidates to receive a minimum of $20,000 from at least 250 different county residents. Each candidate was limited to contributing a personal maximum of $12,000 (or $6,000 from the candidate and $6,000 from a spouse).
When I began knocking on doors almost a year ago, at the first home I went to, the owner liked what I had to say. Especially when I explained that I would guarantee that property taxes would not increase above the rate of inflation over the next four years by using the county law — approved by voters — that allows one councilmember to block any proposed property tax increase. I said, “Even $5 will help.”  She said, “I can give you $5.”
 When I walked away, I was thankful that I had a donation from my very first door-knocking experience. But I went to the next door thinking, “Raising $20,000 is going to be really hard at $5 per donation.”
My moment of reality, however, struck last month. I worked for 20 years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post and spent the last 18 years working in local governments, including two for former State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick, six for the city of Rockville and the past 11 for the Montgomery County government (10 of those on the senior staff of the county council).

While talking with a close friend, and former political journalist, about what I could have done better to meet the qualifying minimums, he was stunned to learn that I did not realize my own dilemma.

“For something like this, you could not have chosen two worse previous careers,” he said. “In politics, the base of your campaign and donations comes from your longtime, closest friends. But look at your friends. As true journalists, it was ingrained in all of us that we should not be involved in campaigns because we report on them, we do not try to influence them. And people who work in government are usually afraid that if their names appear on a list of candidate contributions, and someone else wins, perhaps the winner eventually will hold a grudge.”

He was right in every way.

Many of my friends who have told me they will absolutely be voting for me, did not contribute. I understand. In fact, until just a few years ago, I had never made a political contribution on the local level for the standard journalist/government employee reasons. 

And there was a bit more. This campaign reminded me that I was never good at asking for things for myself. I have a long track record of helping raise funds as a volunteer for nonprofit organizations, and when it came to needs for my respective departments at The Post and working in government, I have always been a strong (and successful) advocate for obtaining additional resources so we could produce more. 

I did get better during this campaign about asking for contributions, but it was not my strong point.

Many of those seeking public funding found the system was complicated. A check from “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” only counts as a donation from one person. When a couple hands you a check for $100, you do not say, “Would you mind tearing that up and giving me checks for $50 from each of you?” What you say is “thank you.”

Although insiders knew the deadline to qualify for matching funds was in mid-May, some people believed the June 26 election date was the deadline. I received several checks while walking around Rockville’s Hometown Holiday celebration over Memorial Day weekend, with people saying they hoped the donation would help me reach the matching funds qualifications. The money will help my campaign, but I had to explain not in the way it might have.
 Over the past year, many of my 32 opponents have spent a lot of time doing whatever they could to get endorsements and contributions. I have spent much of my time showing up to meetings and events, sometimes with only 15 or 20 people, where I was the only candidate there. My strongest backers are people who have helped and influenced many people in their lives and in their work outside of politics, and I hope their endorsements will have a similar impact on voters.
Since I am no longer restricted by the matching funds rules, I can put additional personal money into my campaign. Some of my original donors are now aware they can exceed the $150 individual limit and have already added to their original contributions. I will have enough money to purchase the yard signs, mailers, shirts, bumper stickers, pens and whatever else accompanies successful campaigns.

In this election, the eventual difference will be getting the most votes — just like every county election for the past 50 years. In that category, even without matching funds, I have what it takes to be elected to the county council. And I think many prognosticators will be very surprised on June 26.
 NEIL H. GREENBERGER
The writer is a Democratic candidate for the Montgomery County Council at-large race.

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