Josh Kurtz: Campaign Finance Reports Reorder the 2022 Election — Not!

Photo by Marcel Strauss/Unsplash.com.

Well, we’ve had time to read through and absorb the latest round of state campaign finance reports, and here’s our big takeaway: State Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) has the most money and is the obvious frontrunner in the 2022 gubernatorial election.

Of course, Franchot had the most money and was the obvious frontrunner in the 2022 gubernatorial election before all the annual campaign finance reports were tallied last week.

Come to think of it, Franchot remains the only declared candidate in the 2022 gubernatorial election, which has been the case for over a year now. So he’s the frontrunner and fundraising champion by default.

Which doesn’t make the value of reading and analyzing the campaign finance reports moot. But it does beg the question of when the gubernatorial election is actually going to begin in earnest — and what it will ultimately look like.

Franchot’s $2.2 million cash on hand is formidable, the envy of anyone who is contemplating a run for governor or other statewide office. But when you think about it, considering he has been in his current job for four terms without ever having to sweat reelection, that war chest could be fatter.

Both Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) and Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) narrowly outraised Franchot in the past year. Olszewski reported $1.6 million on hand as of Jan. 13, and Alsobrooks had over $1 million in the bank.

But as much as anything, that’s a testament to their ability — to any savvy county executive’s ability, really — to raise money from developers, other real estate interests and the usual array of companies looking to do business with the county government.

Olszewski, who was the pauper in the three-way Democratic primary in 2018, when he was first elected, is now following in his county’s long tradition of political leaders vacuuming up developer money.

Alsobrooks, also in the middle of her first term, is taking advantage of a change in state law that lifted a ban on county executives raising money from real estate interests that have project proposals pending before the county government. For that she has House Economic Matters Committee Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D) — who happens to work for the Prince George’s County government — to thank.

Their war chests would make Olszewski or Alsobrooks instant contenders if they decided to run for governor in 2022. But will they?

Advisers to both Alsobrooks and Olszewski insist that, while these talented young officeholders are laser-focused on their day jobs and intent on helping their constituents weather multiple crises wrought by COVID-19, they are still contemplating their options for 2022 — and might run for governor. That’s become an all-too-familiar refrain among Democrats.

Tom Perez. File photo.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball ($692,000 cash on hand), in a recent conversation with my colleague Bennett Leckrone, would not rule out making a statewide run in 2022. Former attorney general Douglas F. Gansler ($428,000 on hand, after a quick burst of fundraising in the late fall and early winter) is clearly interested, but publicly isn’t past the “people are urging me to consider it” stage. Outgoing Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is making inquiries (and told Politico about it this week).

Also in this category, to varying degrees, are former U.S. Education secretary John B. King Jr., U.S. Reps. Anthony G. Brown and David J. Trone, and former Rep. John K. Delaney.

Even though he has a day job heading a national advocacy organization, People for the American Way, Benjamin T. Jealous, the 2018 Democratic nominee, just announced Tuesday that he’s becoming the co-chair of a committee connected with Progressive Maryland that’s lobbying to legalize cannabis in Maryland and expunge the records of people with marijuana convictions. So that enables him to keep a hand in the Maryland political scene.

On the Republican side, speculation focuses — as it has since the 2018 election — on Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford ($23,000 in his campaign account), state Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz, and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman ($441,000 in the bank).

But when does this race move beyond the speculation phase? Isn’t it getting awfully late to put together a functioning statewide campaign? Doesn’t this lengthy list of wannabes and thinking abouts get tiresome after a while? Isn’t it time to fish or cut bait? (Don’t even get us started on the list of people who claim they’re thinking about trying to replace Franchot as comptroller — we think it ends up being a two-person race between Baltimore City Del. Brooke E. Lierman and Bowie Mayor Timothy J. Adams, despite what anyone else might say.)

Yes, of course it’s getting late.

But has COVID-19 scrambled the political calendar sufficiently that a late start is OK?

Is it unseemly for politicians, whose stock in trade, after all, is unbridled ambition, to appear too eager during a time of national crisis? Should people who run local governments or have important legislative positions be solely focused on their day jobs?

Or is it acceptable to show a level of ambition — and a desire to lead? Don’t crises demand bold leaders willing to step up to the challenges?

Say what you will about him — at least Franchot leaves no doubt about his intentions. Colleagues sometimes snicker at what they consider to be Lierman’s uber-ambition. But at least she has been out there, doing the work, and having the conversations that are necessary to be an effective statewide candidate and officeholder.

Of course, there is a counter-argument.

In Virginia, where they elect a governor in 2021, a Republican candidate, venture capitalist Pete Snyder just announced his candidacy on Tuesday. The GOP primary is scheduled for June. So a late start is possible — especially if you have deep pockets, as Snyder and some potential Maryland candidates do.

And this much is clear: If Franchot’s $2.2 million war chest is the benchmark for the Democratic primary for governor, then the price of entry for latecomers isn’t that high.

Forget about the wealthy guys like Trone and Delaney for a minute: Perez has enough national contacts and in-state admirers to bank twice what Franchot currently has by next January, if he starts raising money quickly. Same is probably true for King. Gansler has always been an aggressive fundraiser.

Alsobrooks’ take of $827,000 over the past year was amassed almost entirely at home in Prince George’s. She’s got room to grow financially. She’ll attract a lot of donors across the state if she decides to run for governor — not to mention the national attention she’d attract if she became a statewide candidate, aided, no doubt, by her personal friendship with the new Vice President of the United States.

About Alsobrooks’ potentially history-making candidacy, if she tries to become the first Black woman governor in U.S. history next year: You get the impression that this is not something that drives her. That humility is admirable in many ways. But if your lifelong desire is to serve, why not seize the moment?

She would hardly be alone: Two Black women are running for governor of Virginia in 2021, state Sen. Jennifer McLellan and state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy — though a white man, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, is probably the Democratic frontrunner right now. In 2022, Stacey Abrams may run for governor of Georgia again. In Florida, U.S. Rep. Val Demings is mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. And in Massachusetts, Harvard professor Danielle Allen, who is Black, has created an exploratory committee for a possible run for governor. In other words, Alsobrooks would be in good company.

Harvard professor Danielle Allen may run for governor of Massachusetts in 2022. Harvard University photo.

Slice and dice the prospective Democratic field a few other ways: Could Perez and King, two Obama administration Cabinet officials who share political bases and progressive politics, co-exist? What if Franchot, Gansler and Perez ran against each other? It would be 2006 all over again (Franchot and Gansler won statewide office that year; Perez launched a run for attorney general that year but was disqualified from the ballot).

We’ve talked a lot about money here — and no doubt it’s an important factor in shaping the 2022 election. But Franchot hasn’t just been busy raising money all these years; he’s been traveling the state, making contacts, spreading goodwill and collecting chits. In that respect, he’s had a years-long head start on many of his rivals. And that matters.

So Franchot remains the frontrunner. Wannabe candidates for governor: Time to get started.

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