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Election 2022 Government & Politics

‘Progressive’ PAC in Montgomery County Is Really a Bunch of Developers

Businessman David Blair at a news conference on Montgomery County ballot initiatives in 2020. Photo by Glynis Kazanjian.

Coming soon to the mailboxes of Democratic voters in Montgomery County — if they haven’t landed already: slick mailers from a group calling itself Progressives for Progress, urging votes for a slate of candidates for county executive and county council.

But don’t be fooled by that name: This is no band of wild-eyed radicals. Progressives for Progress is a new political action committee created and funded completely by real estate developers and other real estate interests that are agitating for significant change in the direction of the county.

“We are losing ground in the region and we need to make progress,” said Charles Nulsen III, president of Washington Realty Company, a Bethesda-based commercial and residential real estate firm. Nulsen is the chairman of the PAC.

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Every election cycle, business leaders, developers and other real estate companies try to influence the outcome of Montgomery County elections — usually with mixed success. This year, the PAC has raised over half a million dollars, which it is using for mailers and billboards, and it may branch out into other media before the July 19 primaries roll around.

“We are continuing to do mailers and we will be looking for other ways to communicate with voters,” Nulsen said.

The list of candidates the PAC has endorsed will not surprise anyone who follows Montgomery County politics closely. It aligns fairly neatly, though not precisely, with the candidates who are being supported by business groups and who were endorsed last weekend by The Washington Post. One mailer refers to its endorsed candidates as “real Democrats.”

Progressives for Progress has endorsed wealthy businessman David Blair for county executive, and incumbent Councilmembers Gabe Albornoz, Evan Glass and Tom Hucker for at-large seats, along with newcomer Scott Goldberg, who runs a real estate management business. For district races, the PAC has endorsed Councilmembers Andrew Friedson and Sidney Katz for reelection, along with Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce President Marilyn Balcombe, nonprofit leader Amy Ginsburg, Brian Anleu, chief of staff to the Montgomery County Planning Board, former Planning Board Vice Chair Natali Fani-Gonzalez, and Assistant State Attorney General Dawn Luedtke.

Blair four years ago wound up losing the Democratic primary for county executive to the current incumbent, Marc Elrich, by just 77 votes. Big business groups once again have a lot riding on the Blair campaign.

Nulsen said a core group of PAC members vetted and interviewed several candidates for each of the offices.

One of the incumbent council members who was not endorsed by the PAC, first termer Will Jawando (D), called the group’s name “disingenuous.”

“It’s doing exactly what it was intended to do, which is to confuse voters,” said Jawando, who won a grudging endorsement from the Post. “It’s an example of a moneyed interest wanting a particular outcome. At a bare minimum, people should know what money and interest is influencing this.”

Nulsen, who has contributed to national Republicans as often as he has given to national and local Democrats, according to opensecrets.org, a website that tracks money in politics, defended the PAC’s name.

“It is a statement that we feel the liberal, progressive wing of the [Democratic] party is not for anything,” he said. “We’re the progressive part of the party that’s interested in making progress.”

Since it started this spring, Progressives for Progress has raised $527,500, according to campaign finance reports. The contributions came from 40 development companies and other real estate entities, or individuals associated with these firms, in donations that ranged from $500 to $50,000.

As of earlier this month, the PAC had spent $175,225 on mailers, $65,099 for billboards and yard signs, and $37,800 on polling. It still had $249,875 on hand earlier this month.

One thing that’s notable about the list of the PAC’s favored contenders is that it does not feature a single Black candidate, in a county where about 20% of the population is Black. The current nine-seat council has two African American members; the council is adding two more seats in the upcoming election.

Nulsen said the leadership of the group “is color blind” and was simply looking for the candidates who can improve the county’s business climate.

Any resemblance between this political action committee and a 501c4 education entity known as Empower Montgomery, which was set up by business leaders to influence the 2018 elections, is hardly coincidental. The leadership team is roughly the same. Steve Silverman, a former county councilmember who is now a lobbyist, is advising Progressives for Progress, just as he worked with Empower Montgomery.

Four years ago, a Democratic and union activist in Montgomery County, Brian Kildee, filed a complaint against Empower Montgomery with the Maryland State Board of Elections, accusing the entity of illegal coordination with the Blair campaign. Kildee noted that Blair had signed his name to a letter to voters identifying himself as a cofounder of Empower Montgomery, and suggested that Empower Montgomery had misstated its mission in its organization papers. The state board never ruled on the complaint, and Blair has insisted that he was not a founder of the group, though he acknowledged donating money in 2017.

Elrich has long been an anathema to the real estate development community, and the PAC’s endorsement of Blair, along with the Post’s endorsement of the former health care executive, is hardly a surprise. But the Post’s assessment of Elrich in its Blair endorsement was unusually harsh, which cheered Nulsen and his PAC supporters.

The Post said Elrich has “has mismanaged [the county’s] $6 billion budget and workforce, subverted its prospects of attracting jobs and prosperity, pandered to his narrow political base, and set the county up for failure.”

Elrich supporters were stunned that the editorial did not at least mention the executive’s stewardship during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when public health restrictions were more stringent than just about anyplace else in Maryland.

Whether that editorial backfires and motivates Elrich’s supporters is an open question. But FAIR, a progressive national media watchdog, recently published a piece about the Post’s editorializing against Elrich with such vehemence, describing him as “the country’s third-most powerful democratic socialist,” behind only Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“Despite the Post’s efforts, Elrich narrowly won the county executive seat in 2018,” FAIR wrote. “And now he’s standing for reelection, with a good shot at winning.

“That’s an outcome the Post is determined to prevent, lest Elrich set a dangerous example: that a lefty can not only win, but govern so effectively that voters return him to office.

“For the Post — a paper owned by the third-richest human alive, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — scaremongering about lefties is job one. On a national level, that’s led to the Post’s hysterical coverage of Bernie Sanders. On a local level, it’s led to the paper’s attacks on Elrich.”

But the Post’s attacks on Elrich and his allies in Montgomery County politics pre-date Bezos’ ownership of the paper. So now he has a progressive national website defending him — while a faux progressive local group seeks to defeat him.

Disclosure: The Blair Family Foundation was a financial supporter of Maryland Matters in 2020.