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Public Funding of Local Campaigns on the Ballot

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There’s no question that the choice for president is the top issue on the November ballot — as bad as those choices seem to many voters.

But there are good government issues on the ballot as well, in addition to choosing a U.S. senator and challenges to incumbent congressmen. Question A on the Howard County ballot is actually getting statewide attention and even some national notice, as it seeks to establish public funding of campaigns for local offices.

Ben Cohen, the Ben of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, was scheduled to be in Columbia late last month to promote a cause he embraced years ago. “He launched his own nonprofit on the issue a number of years back and has travelled the country supporting initiatives to get big money out of politics,” said Taylor Smith-Hams, an organizer for the effort to pass Question A.

Question A asks Howard County voters to approve a charter amendment. It would require the county council to pass legislation that would set up a system where candidates would get matching funds from a county fund — once they raise enough small contributions and swear off large contributions from individuals and corporations.

How It Would Work

At least that’s how councilmembers Jon Weinstein and Jen Terrasa, who sponsored the original legislation, hope the bill would work. The Montgomery County Council has already passed similar legislation that will be in effect in 2018, but that did not need voter approval; in Howard County, the sponsors found that, without a charter amendment, they could not create a permanent, long-term fund for campaigns without amending the county charter, which requires an O.K. from voters.

Under their proposal and as recommended by the coalition of groups backing it, an independent commission would make funding recommendations to the county executive and county council for annual appropriations to ensure the program is fully functional for qualifying candidates in the 2022 election cycle.

Voters would also be allowed to make a check-off on their local income taxes to fund the program, with the rest of the money coming out of the county budget. A mid-September rally in Ellicott City brought out more than 100 people pledging to work on the campaign, and some big Democratic supporters.

“We’ve got to win this initiative,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, whose second term is up in 2018. “The integrity of the election system is at stake. With the current way campaign funds are raised, we can tell you how corrupting it is.”

Congressman John Sarbanes has been pushing for a public financing system for the House of Representatives for years, without making much headway.

“We know this happens at every level of government,” Sarbanes told the crowd. “Wherever people can write big checks, they write big checks.”

“Momentum is building at the grassroots level,” he said. “This is the solution people have been waiting for.”

“I can’t be more excited,” Sarbanes said. “You’re the change I’ve been waiting for.”

How excited is the congressman? “We’re [going to] win here, and when we win here, my head is going to explode,” he said — a promise that may draw some reluctant Republicans to vote for the measure.

First Time

What’s unusual about the Howard County ballot measure, supporters say, is that this is the first time public financing of local campaigns is being put up for referendum all by itself anywhere in the country.

“We take a risk by putting this on the ballot alone,” Weinstein said.

If passed, the legislation implementing it would go through the usual process. The county council would pass the bill and send it to County Executive Allan Kittleman, who could sign or veto it; if he didn’t like the measure, it would need four of the five council members to override his veto. That’s how the charter amendment passed last spring. The council’s four Democrats voted for the public campaign financing, while Republican member Greg Fox did not, calling it a government handout.

The coalition of organizations supporting the bill includes Common Cause Maryland (whose executive director is treasurer of the campaign committee), Progressive Maryland, Maryland PIRG and the League of Conservation Voters.

The sponsors and the coalition are proposing that donations to candidates be limited to $150, with the first $50 from a donor matched six-to-one for executive, or four-to-one for council. Candidates for executive would have to raise $40,000 on their own before being matched, and candidates for council would need to raise $7,500. Matching funds from the county would be capped at $750,000 for executive and $75,000 for council.

Supporters of the public funding concede this is less than is currently spent on competitive races for these offices. “[The] goal is not to ensure a candidate using matching can outspend all competitors; [the] goal is to stay competitive with enough funding to get the message out,” says the outline for the proposal.

It is worth noting that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan won in 2014 with $2.6 million in public funding of his general election campaign. He was outspent, three-to-one, by Anthony Brown, the losing Democrat.

Special Elections

The other good government measure on the ballot is a state constitutional amendment calling for special elections to replace the Maryland attorney general or comptroller if the posts become vacant early in their four-year terms. This situation has not arisen in decades, but the Maryland Constitution has a general aversion to special elections.

Under Question 1, the only proposed constitutional change on the ballot, the governor would appoint a replacement of the same party, as he does now. But that person would not automatically serve the rest of the term, as currently provided, if the vacancy occurred in the first 12 months of the term. There would be a special election in the presidential election year to fill the job.

Not Foose Fans

Only one incumbent school board member, Janet Siddiqui, survived the April primary, and two incumbents who have supported School Superintendent Renee Foose got knocked off. At a forum for school board candidates last month at the Columbia Democratic Club, the five other primary winners running for three seats on the board also showed they are no fans of Foose.

All five gave Foose a “D” when asked to grade her performance.

“The thing that stands out to me is the budget,” which eliminated funding for some instructional aides, said Kirsten Coombs, the top vote getter in the primary, with 35,298 votes. Foose is “pushing kids with special needs out the door” and “tries to run the school board,” rather than the other way around.

“She came to a great school system and all she had to do is not mess it up,” said Christina Delmont-Small, who came in second with 30,516 votes.

Robert Miller, a recently retired teacher who came in a distant sixth in the primary (14,518 votes), said Foose has “lost the support of the staff” and “has a manipulative style;” Vicky Cutroneo said voters “should judge the school system by how it treats the most vulnerable,” which she said was not very well. She came in fifth with 17,649 votes.

Opponents Criticized

Nayab Siddiqui represented his wife at the forum, but was only allowed to give opening and closing statements. In closing remarks of his own that he added after reading her statement, he criticized the other candidates.

“You did not hear anything that is going on that is positive,” he said. Then to the small crowd of Democratic club members, he said they should “listen to what Donald Trump is saying, and you’ll see some correlation with some of the candidates.”

The remark left the Democrats scratching their heads, because even Cutroneo, the candidate considered the most conservative, sounded very mainstream in her comments on topics like diversity, racial discrimination and inclusion.

Siddiqui came in fourth in the primary, with 24,660 votes. After 10 years on the board, she’s trying to survive an onslaught from the Howard County Education Association, the teachers union is backing Coombs, Delmont-Small and Mavis Ellis, who is a long-time educator in the Montgomery County system (and the only African-American running). She came in third, just ahead of Siddiqui with 25,388 votes.

Fund for Disaster

Gov. Hogan doesn’t always say the political thing, but in thanking Democratic officials for their help in getting federal disaster funding for flood-damaged Ellicott City, he did.

“When this devastating storm hit, we assured residents and leaders in Howard County that our administration would pursue all avenues of support to help our communities rebuild,” Hogan said, in a statement. “I would like to thank Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman for his leadership and extend my sincerest gratitude to Senator Barbara Mikulski, Senator Ben Cardin, Congressman Elijah Cummings and the entire Maryland delegation for working diligently at the federal level to secure this vital assistance for businesses, citizens, and public infrastructure damaged by this historic flooding. I am amazed by the resilience of Ellicott City and the surrounding communities and look forward to Main Street again being the focal point of local activity.”