Josh Kurtz: Opportunities and Obstacles

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Ask Phil Andrews, the four-term Montgomery County councilman, what he plans to do when he leaves office in December, and he says he hopes to be able to continue working on political reform issues.

Let me translate: After finishing a surprisingly strong third in this year’s Democratic primary for county executive, with 22 percent of the vote, Andrews will probably try to run for county executive again in 2018.

And in a reform measure that he introduced that comes before the County Council today, Andrews has the vehicle to help him do it – a bill to establish public financing for council and executive races in Montgomery County.

That piece of legislation could well transform politics in the D.C. suburbs – as could a ballot question before Prince George’s County voters this fall to extend term limits on the county executive and council members from two to three. Because the Montgomery measure has a better chance of becoming law – every councilmember has signed on as a co-sponsor -- let’s take a look at that one first.

The public financing bill offers inducements to candidates who reject big campaign contributions from special interests. If they hit a certain threshold for money raised in small increments, the county’s public financing system would kick in with a 4-1 match. So, for example, a candidate who raises $100,000 could expect $400,000 from the county pot and wind up spending $500,000.

It isn’t as simple as it sounds. The number of small contributions required to trigger the public match is relatively high. There are intricate conditions placed on every dollar raised. And a candidate for county executive couldn’t take in more than $1.5 million in public funds. Some candidates – well-connected incumbents especially – would have to alter their fundraising strategies significantly.

Still, it’s easy to see how a public-financing law could help level the playing field for a grassroots-oriented candidate like Andrews, who raised less than $300,000 for his countywide bid, while the two other Democratic candidates for county executive, incumbent Ike Leggett and former exec Doug Duncan, vacuumed up almost $2 million between them. According to a calculation by David Lublin in the political blog The Seventh State, Andrews would have qualified for almost $450,000 in matching funds if the law were in place this year.

Assuming Leggett doesn’t seek a fourth term as executive in 2018 – and that’s not as safe an assumption as most people think – the race to replace him will be incredibly wide open. You’ve got to figure that at in addition to Andrews, all the current Council members who are returning for another term – Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, Nancy Navarro, Craig Rice and Hans Riemer – are at least contemplating the starting gate. Former County Council members Valerie Ervin and Mike Knapp will probably be in the conversation for executive. Steve Silverman, the former councilman who is now Leggett’s economic development director, may take another shot. State legislators like Sen. Brian Feldman and Del. Ben Kramer may take a look at running. No doubt there are others. What about John Delaney? Or Tom Perez? Or the random rich guy looking for an entrée into the political game?

How many of these wannabe candidates will take a closer look at running because of the public finance law? Quite a few, no doubt. And if several council members run for executive, there could be a long line of contenders forming to take their jobs.

So if it shakes up the political order in Montgomery County, public financing could be a very, very good thing.

The term limits question in Prince George’s, however, is a little trickier to assess on the merits.

When the County Council voted in July to place the measure on the November ballot, Councilwoman Andrea Harrison explained that it was a good idea because “we are always starting over.” Point well taken. But why extend the limits for just another term – why not abolish them altogether and let the voters have full control?

Here’s an example of how situational politics can be. Rushern Baker is doing a good job as county executive – why shouldn’t he be allowed an opportunity to finish the work he’s started? But if on-the-take Jack Johnson is your county executive, do you really want to give him a shot at a third term?

Then again, history – in Maryland and across the country – is littered with good politicians in executive positions who outwore their welcomes in their third terms and saw their reputations diminished.

The current Council has some good members and some less-than-stellar ones. How can you make it easier for the good ones to stay and the “meh” ones to move on? Unfortunately, you can’t.

And then there’s political reality. It’s been widely assumed that when it comes to succeeding Baker as county executive, State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks is first in line. Is Alsobrooks – who, incidentally, could have waltzed into the attorney general’s job this year, if she had wanted it – content to wait another four years to become county executive if Baker is given the opportunity to seek a third term in 2018? In Alsobrooks’ case, there is particular political peril for prosecutors who stay in office for too long (see Jessamy, Patricia, for one stark example), and that’s another consideration.

Is the term limits gambit the reason Baker pushed the legislature so hard to raise Alsobrooks’ salary (it’s due to rise to $199,000, which puts her in line with Montgomery State’s Attorney John McCarthy)? As the bill was making its way through the General Assembly this spring, Baker’s spokesman said the bill was not written with Alsobrooks in mind, but was about “equity.” Fair enough. But it wasn’t written – or debated – in a political vacuum.

Term limits passed in Prince George’s County by a wide margin in 1992 – when the national term limit movement was at its high point. An attempt to rescind them in 2000 was defeated handily. And besides Baker and the Council members, it’s hard to see who’s clamoring to see the limits extended by one term.

So this entire discussion may be moot.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.