Did MoCo Term Limits Cause More Competition?

By Adam Pagnucco.

One theory making the rounds in MoCo’s political world is that the passage of term limits for county officials is responsible for creating the high level of candidate competition we are now witnessing.  An opposing point of view is that this competition would have happened anyway due to other factors, such as County Executive Ike Leggett’s retirement and the availability of public campaign financing.  Who’s right and who’s wrong?

In assessing these two views, we asked the candidates themselves which one has more truth.  Following are the perspectives of six people who are actual or potential candidates for seats with term limited incumbents.

Source 1: There is no doubt in my mind that term limits and the resulting open seats are among the most important reasons there are so many people running for council. I have heard that from a number of other candidates.

Source 2: I think there would have been healthy competition without term limits for the same reason that term limits passed. People are ready for some change. Public financing is also a big factor in bringing in new candidates. It would have emboldened challengers even without term limits. Now we have three term limited council members vying for Executive. Room there for new blood, don’t you think?

Source 3: I think Leventhal, Berliner and Elrich would have run anyway. Not sure about Floreen. So I think there would have been a large number of new people anyway. And then public financing probably doubled that number.

Term limits author Robin Ficker credits his successful charter amendment for promoting “fresh ideas.”  Is he right?

Source 4: I believe that Ike would not have sought a 4th term regardless of the term limit issue. This would have freed up seats because of the interest in running for CE. I’m also not confident that Nancy Floreen would have sought an additional term anyway. I’m more in the “competition would have occurred anyway” camp. In my opinion, the number of open seats because of an opening for CE plus retirement, coupled with public finance and the “Trump effect” have created the high level of interest and competition that we will see.

Source 5: You can entertain all sorts of theories and hypotheticals but at the end of the day, more people run when there’s an open seat.  And more seats (probably) opened because of term limits. I mean, might Elrich, Berliner and Leventhal have run for CE anyway? Maybe. But term limits seems to make the current scenario much more likely, and thus draw in more competition because there are more open seats. I also think some “perfect storm” effect of term limits and public financing landing in the same cycle probably enhanced the overall effect on competition. But I think term limits are more significant here than public financing is.

Source 6: Term limits were very helpful in demonstrating the mood of the electorate: an across the board and widespread feeling that they wanted new leadership and a different approach. But I honestly don’t think it made a material change in the number of open seats — just the feeling of those running, thinking about running and the electorate. Unless people think Ike would have run for a 4th term which I don’t but I imagine would have been possible.

Our Take

The key to understanding the impact of term limits is the decision-making of incumbent County Executive Ike Leggett.  After being elected to his second term as Executive in 2010, Leggett said that he was “originally inclined not to run again.”  That stance helped induce former County Executive Doug Duncan and Council Members Phil Andrews, Valerie Ervin and George Leventhal to consider running for Leggett’s seat.  But by November 2012, Leggett was considering another run and he made it official in June 2013.  Ervin (who had commissioned a poll) and Leventhal decided not to challenge Leggett and he went on to defeat Duncan and Andrews in 2014.

This time around, term limits robbed Leggett of the ability to change his mind.  He ruled out another run last October, but by that point it had become clear to nearly everyone that term limits were going to pass.  Once they did, Leventhal and fellow Council Member Marc Elrich were running for Executive in short order and their colleague Roger Berliner soon followed.  Might Leggett have retired anyway?  Sure, but term limits answered that question once and for all.  Term limits also ruled out another council run for at-large incumbent Nancy Floreen.  These open seats plus public financing have created a historic deluge of county-level candidates in MoCo.

Our sense is that term limits alone did not cause all the competition we are seeing.  But they did bring clarity to the political landscape and they accelerated the plans of many candidates.  One of them, at-large candidate Bill Conway, has already claimed to qualify for public matching funds in the county’s public financing system.  Others are on the way.  One more thing seems clear: almost no one is mourning the passage of term limits.  Many Democratic activists seem pleased with the abundance of choices they will have next year.  On to the future.