Voter Asks Elections Officials to Probe Montgomery County Business Group

A Montgomery County Democratic voter has asked the Maryland State Board of Elections to investigate whether Empower Montgomery, a political entity connected to developers and business leaders, has accurately characterized its mission in official documents. He also wants state elections officials to determine whether there has been improper coordination between the organization and David T. Blair, a leading Democratic candidate for county executive who was listed as a founder of Empower Montgomery when the organization was created in 2016. Brian Kildee, a Silver Spring resident, emailed a complaint to the elections board late Monday night, with accompanying documents showing Empower Montgomery’s activities over the past several months. But while the group was created two years ago, it has ramped up its attempts to influence county politics in recent weeks – first by paying for an economic study showing a potentially stagnant economy ahead for Montgomery County, followed by a voter guide released last week that grades the candidates on business and development issues based on their responses to a questionnaire.  Steve Silverman  The Maryland primary is next Tuesday, and early voting began a week ago. It is not clear what action, if any, state elections officials could take with the primary so close. Jared DeMaranis, director of the Candidacy and Campaign Finance Division at the state Board of Elections, did not respond to phone messages Tuesday. But that did not deter Kildee. “In the short term, I want to raise awareness about who Empower Montgomery really is and what they’ve been doing in this election, so that Democrats can take that information into consideration when they vote for county executive,” he told Maryland Matters Tuesday. “In the long term, I hope the Board of Elections will determine that this scheme is a violation of the state’s coordination laws and take action to discourage others from engaging in the same behavior in the future.” It is Empower Montgomery’s scorecard – delivered to voters’ mailboxes and available online – that spurred Kildee to act. The delivery of the voter guide was accompanied by Empower Montgomery registering with the state elections board last week as a political committee – even though it has characterized itself on its website as a 501(c)(4) entity, eligible to undertake certain educational activities that fall short of pure politics. In recent days, Empower Montgomery has reported $125,000 in contributions from development and real estate companies in the Washington, D.C., area, including $40,000 in corporate entities connected to Willco Construction Co. in Potomac, $20,000 from Southern Management Corp., and $15,000 from the political action committee of the Metropolitan Washington Association of Builders and Contractors. Empower Montgomery also reported $84,000 in payments for mailers to Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based communications and polling firm run by Keith Haller, a longtime political player in Montgomery County (and a co-founder of Maryland Matters). Kildee said he could find no record of Empower Montgomery’s status as a nonprofit organization – a 501(c)(3) – or as a 501(c)(4), and in his letter, he asks elections officials to help sort out the confusion.  Maryland Matters contacted several people affiliated with Empower Montgomery on Tuesday. Steve Silverman, a former Montgomery County councilman and economic development director who was one of Empower Montgomery’s early organizers, said the group could not comment on Kildee’s communication with the elections board. “Empower has received no notification by the Board of Elections about the complaint or the process. Empower is a 501(c)(4) entity and has been since its inception,” he said in an email.  In its voter guide, the organization stops short of making endorsements, but it does grade the candidates in the six-way Democratic primary for county executive and in the six races for County Council seats based on their responses to survey questions, highlighting “candidates who embrace a dynamic, forward-looking approach to government!” Blair finished second on the scorecard for county executive candidates, siding with Empower Montgomery’s priorities on nine of the 12 questions asked. Former Rockville mayor Rose G. Krasnow was in sync with the organization on 11 of the 12 questions. By contrast, County Councilman Marc B. Elrich, who along with Blair is considered a frontrunner in the county executive primary and is anathema to many Montgomery business leaders, earned a score of -5.   “Considering David Blair’s role as a co-founder of Empower Montgomery lnc., the organization’s expenditures and communications to promote his candidacy appear to meet the standard for the organization being considered a ‘coordinated spender.’” Kildee wrote in his email to the board of elections. Laura Evans Manatos, a spokeswoman for Blair’s campaign, called Kildee’s assertion that there could be coordination between Empower Montgomery and the businessman, who is largely self-funding his campaign, “meritless and completely bizarre.” “It claims that David’s campaign coordinated a mailing that rated another candidate ahead of him,” she said. “It’s just another desperate attack from the same crowd that’s spending super PAC money to attack David. We’re going to stay focused on the issues that matter and moving Montgomery County forward.” That was a reference to an ad that the group Progressive Maryland PAC began airing earlier this week, attacking Blair, his business record and his self-funding. “David Blair is just not one of us,” the narrator says at the ad’s conclusion. Kildee is not affiliated with Progressive Maryland or the unions and other liberal organizations that have been funding the group’s PAC, which supports Elrich in the Democratic primary. While he has been active in local Democratic politics for two decades – and spent several years as a staffer at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters – his lone activity in the county executive election was a $250 contribution to state House Majority Leader C. William Frick (D). jkurtz@marylandmatters.org

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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