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Government & Politics

Rockville Vote-By-Mail Election Attracts Outside Attention

Mail ballot drop-off in Rockville. Photo by Glynis Kazanjian.

Editor’s note: They don’t get much attention, but 17 Maryland municipalities are holding elections on Nov. 5. Today we feature a look at the Rockville elections. Later this week we’ll do shorter looks at a few other races of note.

When Rockville officials approved a new vote-by-mail system seeking higher turnout in future elections, they may not have bargained for the surge in outside influence from special interest groups and state lawmakers now playing out in the Nov. 5 election for mayor and City Council.

On Oct. 7, election officials mailed approximately 38,000 ballots to active, registered voters in Rockville, which has a population near 70,000.

Voter turnout in the last three municipal elections has averaged 16 percent, according to the city’s website. Rockville is the first municipality in Maryland to implement vote-by-mail elections, though voters still have the option to vote in person on Election Day or drop off a ballot at a secure, marked box at City Hall.

With ballots now mailed out, no one knows for sure how that will affect the overall election dynamic, turnout or final results.

“This is unchartered territory for everybody,” said former Montgomery County councilman Steven A. Silverman, who also served as the county’s economic development chief. “This is the first time they’re doing vote by mail. You have to throw out what happened in the past in terms of predicting an election. All of a sudden people are getting a piece of mail saying they can vote for somebody, and they don’t have to leave the confines of their home. It’s never been done before this way.”

Like a handful of other lobbyists and several elected officials, Silverman, now a principal at SSGovRelations, is throwing his support behind City Councilwoman Virginia Onley, who is challenging incumbent Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton.

Onley, the sole challenger to Newton, has received the largest amount of support from special interest groups, state, county and city lawmakers – past and present – and former county council candidates who ran contentious races in 2018.

Rockville City Councilwoman Virginia Onley, a candidate for mayor.

At the most basic level, Onley and Newton differ most on issues of growth and development. Newton and her ticket mates are warning against overdevelopment; Onley and her allies running for Council favor more zoning density, to create more affordable housing in the city.

Onley has won the support of Progressive Maryland, a statewide advocacy organization, and Our Revolution Montgomery County – a local branch of the national political action organization spun out of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Both organizations provide campaign support to candidates with progressive policies.

Along with affordable housing, Onley is making economic diversity a top campaign priority.

The Action Committee for Transit, which supports public transportation expansion, and the Coalition of Asian Pacific American Democrats of Montgomery County, which supports economic diversity, have endorsed Onley and the full “Team Rockville” slate in the election. CASA In Action, a pro-immigrant group, has endorsed Onley, James Hedrick and David Myles on Team Rockville and Monique Ashton on the Rockville Forward slate.

Five state lawmakers outside of the Rockville’s District 17 are lined up behind Onley: Sen. Susan Lee (Dist. 16) and Dels. Gabriel Acevero (Dist. 39), Charlotte Crutchfield (Dist. 19), Jheanelle Wilkins (Dist. 20) and Pamela Queen (Dist. 14).

Onley is also backed by Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D), a former Rockville city councilwoman who is actively involved in her campaign.

At-Large Montgomery County Councilman William Jawando (D) hosted a happy hour for Onley earlier this month and Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Z. Slavin, a vice chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, has also contributed to her campaign.

Rockville City Councilwoman Beryl Feinberg, who is running on a slate with Newton, has also racked up a slew of recent endorsements from current and former elected officials. They include Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy (D), Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin (D), several county councilmembers and two state lawmakers from outside Rockville.

Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton

Newton, a former city councilwoman who is seeking a third term as mayor, has said it is imperative to retain local control over Rockville matters.

She has only sought endorsements from former Rockville mayors, which she says she’s received in the past.

“Our priority is to listen to the voices of those we serve before voting independently,” says an an excerpt from the Facebook page for Newton’s slate, “Rockville Forward.”

Newton confirmed endorsements of four former Rockville mayors: Jim Coyle; Douglas M. Duncan, who also served as Montgomery County executive; Larry Giammo; and Steven Van Grack.

“I have been endorsed by four former Rocvkille mayors and feel that their support is a more relevant voice,” Newton said. “I am honored to have their endorsement.”

The city’s future, in Newton’s words, includes “protecting the character of Rockville’s neighborhoods while managing its growth, and welcoming all people.”

On affordable housing, Newton says she supports a continuum of housing across all sectors in Rockville, including workforce housing and mixed-income housing.

Onley views the unprecedented support she and the Team Rockville slate have received from outside the city as acknowledgement that Rockville voters matter to the county and the state. She says she will unify the community.

“Whether you are an elected official or connected to one of the groups who have endorsed me, people want a Rockville mayor who embraces and unifies all stakeholders – a mayor who has a history of inclusion,” Onley said. “From my work on the Senior Citizen Commission to Human Rights Commission to Rockville Housing Enterprises, I have a history of fighting for and representing those with limited incomes while still representing all people.”

Councilman Mark Pierzchala, the only other incumbent on the Team Rockville slate that includes Onley, has participated in five city elections since 2007. Twice, he has lost races for mayor – once to Newton.

He attributes the enthusiasm from outside support to two things – the new vote-by-mail system and a “deep dissatisfaction” with Newton.

Pierzchala also said it is noteworthy that Onley would be become the first African-American mayor of Rockville if elected.

“Nobody knows how the vote-by-mail is going to impact the outcome,” Pierzchala said. “Nobody knows who’s going to mail in their ballots. …The vote by mail is a big deal.”

Self-funding at an all-time high

Candidates are also contributing historic amounts of money to their campaign coffers, in what has traditionally been a low dollar, low-turnout election with few endorsements. They are hoping to capture hundreds, if not thousands, of first-time voters.

“Vote by Mail is much more expensive for the candidates as well as the city,” Newton said.

Pierzchala has loaned his campaign $24,000, nearly half the amount he has given to his last five campaigns. Six thousand dollars of that went to the Team Rockville slate via a loan.

Newton contributed $12,000 to her campaign, which was then transferred to her slate. In 2015 the mayor contributed approximately 50 percent less.

The “Rockville Forward” slate features Newton; Feinberg, the city councilwoman’ plus Monique Ashton, Suzan Pitman, and Kuan Lee.

The “Team Rockville” slate features Onley, Pierzchala, Cynthia Cotte Griffiths, James Hedrick and David Myles. Hedrick is also endorsed by Progressive Maryland and Our Revolution.

Despite the formation of two five-member slates, 15 candidates overall will appear on the ballot.

Lee, an attorney, said the intensity and competition of the election led him to join a slate rather than run independently. He said he met in the basement of Pierzchala’s home with Onley on April 22 to discuss becoming a member of Team Rockville, but left deciding instead to join Newton’s Rockville Forward slate.

Lee said the duo asked him to agree to sign a document committing to certain policy positions, including a “pro-development” core principal. Lee’s impression is that the pro-development stance directly correlated with increased housing density.  He also said slate members were required to contribute to $2,000 to $3,000 each.

The meeting lasted over an hour, Lee said. He documented their conversations in a 615-word Google Drive document.

Onley and Pierzchala deny asking Lee to sign any type of policy agreement. They also said they never talked about specific financial requirements.

“Team Rockville shares common principles but does not require unanimity on policy positions,” Onley said.

“Kuan Lee’s memory of the meeting is not entirely accurate,” Pierzchala said. “Only after the Team is formed do we decide on policy positions, if any. “These are general statements, and do not contain specifics. …Any amount of expected contributions to Team Rockville is decided only after the Team is formed.”

Onley also said the meeting “was short.”

“The meeting was short, Mr. Lee said he was not available, thanked Mark Pierzchala and myself for considering him and he left.”

Other Council candidates in Rockville’s nonpartisan election who are not running on slates include Richard Gottfried, Charles Littlefield, Donald A. Masters, Brigitta Mullican and Matthew Perkins.

Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].



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Rockville Vote-By-Mail Election Attracts Outside Attention