Downcounty Dominates Public Financing, Part One

By Adam Pagnucco.

When Montgomery County passed public financing more than six years ago, many predictions were made. Public financing was supposed to empower small donors. (It did.) It was supposed to draw in more candidates for office. (It did.) It was supposed to reduce the influence of “special interests.” (That’s debatable.) But one of its biggest impacts was something no one predicted because it wasn’t on anyone’s radar when it was passed:

Public financing has amplified the political influence of downcounty.

In this series, we are going to investigate the geography of political contributions made in the county’s public financing system. That’s important because just as politicians pay special attention to the sources of their votes, they certainly pay special attention to the sources of their campaign contributions. Knowing where the money comes from greatly aids the understanding of our political system and public financing is no exception.

First, let’s discuss methodology. This series looks at public financing contributions to 2018 candidates for county executive and county council at-large. It excludes candidates for district council seats because their contributions naturally skew towards their districts. Of particular interest are individual contributions that are eligible for public matching funds. (We’ll explain more about this below.)

In terms of geography, we will look at towns, zip codes and two regions: downcounty and upcounty. Downcounty is defined as the “Democratic Crescent,” a term I coined that includes Takoma Park, Silver Spring (inside the Beltway), Chevy Chase, Kensington, Bethesda, Glen Echo and Cabin John. Because there are thousands of individual contributions, I am using zip codes 20901 and 20910 as proxies for Silver Spring inside the Beltway. Upcounty is defined as Ashton, Barnesville, Boyds, Beallsville, Brookeville, Clarksburg, Damascus, Dickerson, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Laytonsville, Montgomery Village, Olney, Poolesville, Sandy Spring, Spencerville and Washington Grove. Lots of communities, including but not limited to Rockville, Potomac, Wheaton, Glenmont, Burtonsville and most of East County are in neither downcounty nor upcounty.

Public financing changes fundraising incentives for politicians. Those who use traditional financing are interested in big checks, whether they come from PACs, businesses, wealthy people or self-funding. Those who use the county’s public financing system (it’s voluntary) are interested in individual contributions from county residents, with the allowable maximum at $250. (The maximum was $150 in the 2018 cycle.) That’s because the county will match individual contributions from residents of up to $150 on a sliding scale, with smaller contributions getting a larger percentage match. Public financing participants can collect individual contributions from non-county residents but those will not get public matching funds. Public financing participants can’t collect contributions from PACs, unions, businesses or other non-individual sources but they can give themselves up to $12,000 in self-funded seed money. (That amount includes money from a spouse.)

And so publicly financed politicians raise money by collecting lots and lots of small checks from county residents and getting public matching funds for them. Those matching funds are capped depending on which office the candidate is seeking and they are only available when certain thresholds of individual contributions are reached. All of this means that it’s really important that publicly financed candidates come into contact with lots of county residents who are going to write checks, even small ones. They will go wherever they think such residents are located. They will hold whatever events are necessary to attract them. They will ask surrogates to round them up on their behalf. And if certain communities don’t contribute as much money and/or don’t fit the politician’s electoral strategy, the politician will spend less time there. From a fundraising perspective, what’s the point of talking to people who either can’t or won’t write checks that can be matched with public funds?

In a previous post, I wrote that downcounty accounted for a disproportionate percentage of voting in the 2018 Democratic primary. That was the case long before 2018 and county politicians understand that reality. It turns out that downcounty residents not only vote more, they contribute more too. That has had a measurable impact in the public financing system.

We will begin analyzing that in Part Two.