Marilyn Balcombe, a Germantown resident who ran a strong fifth in the 2018 Democratic Party council at-large primary, is co-chairing a new group opposing the Nine Districts charter amendment (Question D). Balcombe has previously written a guest blog for Seventh State making the case for Upcounty to increase its voter turnout as a way to gain influence in county politics. The press release from Balcombe’s new group is reprinted below.
NEWS RELEASE For Immediate Release September 23, 2020
Press Contacts: Marilyn Balcombe, firstname.lastname@example.org (Co-chair) Michelle Graham, email@example.com (Co-chair)
Residents for More Representation
County Leaders Form Ballot Committee to Oppose Nine Districts
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, MD — A broad coalition of grassroots, labor and business leaders from across Montgomery County today announced the formation of Residents for More Representation to support the expansion of the County Council to 11 members and oppose the creation of nine separate districts.
Upcounty leader Marilyn Balcombe of Germantown and East County leader Michelle Graham of Olney will co-chair the effort in support of Montgomery County Ballot Question C, which would expand the number of council districts from five to seven, while retaining the four at-large seats. Residents for More Representation will also actively oppose Ballot Question D, which would eliminate the four at-large seats and replace them with four individual districts.
“As a resident of Germantown, I know that residents of Montgomery County need more representation, not less,” said Marilyn Balcombe. “The county’s population has increased by 50% over the last 30 years, which is why we need to expand and modernize our council structure so that it better reflects our incredible growth and brings local government closer to our residents. Question C is the best approach to achieve a shared goal by many in our community. Adding two additional districts will help increase the level of constituent service and protect the important role of our at-large councilmembers.”
“We live in an incredibly diverse county of 1.1 million residents and the at-large councilmembers play an important role in reflecting that diversity,” said Michelle Graham. “The current council is the most culturally diverse council in our history, with two Black, two Latino and one LGBTQ councilmember, three of whom are at-large. Adding two more councilmembers will increase the number of voices and help increase the diversity of views represented on the council.”
Montgomery County voters will vote on six ballot measures in this election. Questions C and D would both restructure the County Council from the current configuration of electing five by districts and four at-large. Question C would create two new district seats, while maintaining the four at-large seats. Question D would eliminate the four at-large seats and create nine separate geographic districts. Changing the council structure to nine separate districts would result in reducing each resident’s representation on the council from five to one.
Residents for More Representation is a registered ballot committee formed to support expanded representation and more geographic and cultural diversity on the County Council.
Marilyn Balcombe is the current President/CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce and has been actively engaged in the County for over 26 years. As a former At-Large candidate for the Montgomery County Council and as an Upcounty resident, Balcombe has a strong understanding of the needs in her community and the importance of expanding representation.
Michelle Graham grew up in Montgomery County where she has resided for more than 40 years. An active member of a grassroots organization formed, in part, to educate and raise the level of civic engagement, particularly among communities of color, she is dedicated to ensuring that citizens, especially underrepresented groups, are informed about local issues and the potential impact to their lives and community.
The post about a restaurant not requiring face masks was one of the top five most-read stories in the history of this blog. (That puts some perspective on the relative importance of politics!) Marilyn Balcombe and Sunil Dasgupta deserve congratulations for their excellent and widely read guest posts. Aside from those, the top posts generally reflect the top two stories of the month: MCPS’s reopening decision and the county’s ethics-challenged Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine.
The premise of the petition drive by Nine Districts for MoCo is that the current structure of the Montgomery County Council does not allow for fair representation for residents in the Upcounty because seven of the nine Councilmembers live Downcounty. As it has been since 2006, all four At-Large Councilmembers live south/southeast of Rockville. The problem isn’t gerrymandered districts. The problem is voter apathy. The Upcounty simply does not vote at the same percentage as the County overall.
First the data.
The source of this data is the 2018 Gubernatorial Democratic Primary. For better or worse, local elections are decided in the Democratic primary and have been since 2006. Given the current party affiliations of registered voters in the county, changing the make-up of the County Council to nine district seats will not change that. If the reason behind the push for 9 district seats is geographic representation, we have to look at the Democratic primary to see why we are where we are and what we can do to change it. Focusing on the primary also underscores why it has been so difficult to change the paradigm.
Every 10 years councilmanic districts are redrawn to provide an equal number of residents for each district. Theoretically Upcounty Districts 2 and 3 should have as much say in any given election as Downcounty districts, such as District 1 in Bethesda or District 5 in Silver Spring and Takoma Park.
Granted, while each district starts off with the same number of residents, there are differences in the number of registered voters in each district. Regardless of the number of residents, the number and percentage of registered voters is lower in the Upcounty than in other areas of the County. There are also more Republicans and Independent voters in the Upcounty. The disparity in the total number of registered Democrats in the Upcounty makes a difference in the number of votes cast, but the fatal discrepancy is in the percentage of eligible Democrats who vote. Looking solely at turnout of Democratic voters, Council District 2 lags behind the rest of the County by 7 percentage points and significantly falls short of District 1 (Bethesda / Potomac) by 17 points.
The concept of Upcounty / Downcounty is an informal distinction with no true definition. As an Upcounty activist, I define the area to be North-Northwest of Rockville to include all of Council District 2, parts of D3 (Gaithersburg) and parts of D1 (Darnestown and Poolesville). The total Upcounty results are very similar to the D2 results with 29% of registered Democrats voting in the 2018 Gubernatorial Primary. Of course, the Upcounty isn’t monolithic. We have Poolesville and Darnestown areas voting at roughly 38% and the areas of Germantown and Montgomery Village with 28% voter participation rate. [NOTE: Election results are not reported by geographical area. The Upcounty breakdown data is based on individual precinct data aggregated for each of the areas identified.]
The same pattern is seen when looking at the State Legislative Districts. Upcounty District 39 continues to be the lowest voter turnout in the County, election after election. Historically, District 15 also had low voter turnout. However, in 2018 there was a contentious battle for an open Congressional seat and we saw a significant increase in voter participation in the district.
The Upcounty doesn’t vote and nobody cares.
I understand that is an inflammatory statement. However, the lack of voter turnout in the Upcounty is not new by any stretch. Council District 2 has had the lowest voter turnout, as has State District 39, as far back as I remember looking at the data. Every so often someone – myself included – will become outraged and try to light a fire of activism that quickly peters out. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a systemic get out the vote (GOTV) effort in the Upcounty for the Democratic primary. There are 3 basic reasons why:
1. The current system works for everyone in power so there is no impetus for change. For candidates, including incumbents, it doesn’t really matter how many people vote. It just matters that you get the most votes. In every election I’ve ever seen, there is never enough time or money to reach every registered voter, let alone every potential voter. The most effective strategy is for candidates to reach out to the people who are most likely to vote – the “Super Dems” – which does not expand the voter base. In fact it perpetuates a small sliver of voters being responsible for determining our local elected body.
2. Similarly, candidates, including incumbents, go where the votes are. The first thing a candidate learns in How to Run for Office 101 is to know your number. How many votes do you need to win and where are you going to get the votes? If a higher percent of residents vote in the Downcounty, a candidate running At-Large will focus time and money in the geographic areas that turn out the most voters.
3. Another important factor is the role of the Democratic Party. Of course they want to increase voter participation, but their ultimate goal is to get Democrats elected in the general election. Because the primaries are partisan by design, the various democratic clubs don’t often actively engage in the primaries. While there may be some GOTV activity for the primary, the major push is for the general.
Does it really matter where the At-Large Councilmembers live if they still represent the whole County?
Yes. It’s a matter of representation which boils down to familiarity and exposure. As an active member of the community, a Councilmember is going to have a fluent knowledge of their own community much better than they do in other parts of the County – the schools, roads, parks, public safety, community structure, etc. In discussing transportation funding, it is so much easier for a Councilmember living in Silver Spring to understand the issues impacting Colesville Road than it is to fully understand the need for a road like M-83 – and if you had to look up what M-83 is, you proved my point. An At-Large Councilmember will continue to become more entrenched in their own community just by the nature of the geography. If there are a number of community events on a Saturday afternoon, it is much easier for a Councilmember who lives in Downcounty to hit three events in Silver Spring than come to events in Germantown. It’s also much easier for them to stop by an event on their way home from Rockville or drop by an event close to home between an early dinner and putting their kids to bed.
I’ve been working with At-Large members of the County Council for over 20 years in my job and in my community work. Through the years, some have done a much better job than others in being present and representing the Upcounty. I believe in the important role and function of the At-Large members of the County Council and do not advocate abolishing the At-Large seats, although I am intrigued by Adam Pagnucco’s recent blog post on increasing the number of geographic districts.
What’s the solution?
If the incumbents, candidates, and the party aren’t going to increase voter participation in the Upcounty, we need to take individual responsibility for our own representation and do what we can to get out the vote. Imagine if the time, effort and funding of the Nine Districts for MoCo initiative was spent registering Upcounty voters, educating those already registered about the importance of the gubernatorial primary in Montgomery County, and then working – as hard as they are working now – to actually Get Out The Vote on primary election day. If every person who signed the Nine Districts petition made it a personal goal to increase voter participation in the Upcounty, we could make it happen.
Looking again to the 2018 primary, if the Upcounty turnout was the same as the County’s overall average, we would have had 6,000 more votes in the Upcounty. That most likely wouldn’t have changed the results of the At-Large race. However, if the Upcounty turnout was the same as the average turnout for District 1, we would have had almost 16,000 more votes which most likely would have. At the very least it would tell future candidates that the Upcounty matters.
Marilyn Balcombe is a resident of Germantown who ran for County Council At-Large in 2018.
It’s not easy to be a public official. It involves dealing with not only a lot of tough issues and often unappealing choices. It also entails listening to unhappy constituents who often express their feelings vehemently and with anger, especially in our current age when there is so much of the latter going around. And, of course, you have to deal with people like me.
As a result, I thought it would be good to highlight some candidates for office here in Montgomery County who I think have the right temperament for public office. This is wholly different from whether I agree with them on issues and as a result I don’t plan to vote for all of them (and I don’t live in all of their constituencies).
It does mean that they strike me as even-keeled people who will address issues thoughtfully and have a good capacity to listen to people and take on board the views of people with whom they disagree. In an election with a plethora of candidates, it seems worth identifying some who deserve a look-in to see if they are what you are seeking in a candidate.
One caution: Writing this blog gives me the opportunity to meet a good many candidates. In truth, however, it’s only a fraction of the many running for office and space is limited even on the Internet. So please don’t take omission from here as even the most oblique indictment. There are a lot of good people running for office. Here are just a few of them.
Aruna Miller is running to represent the Sixth Congressional District. The people who work closely with Aruna in the House of Delegates admire and respect her as a serious, hard-working legislator, and she has received the bulk of their endorsements. I only know Aruna so well but what I see only verifies these impressions. Del. Miller brought an unusual level of calm maturity and experience when she entered politics. Unafraid to stand up for principle, she can also reach out and work well with others.
Evan Glass is running for Council At-Large. I got to know Evan because we served on the Board of Equality Maryland together. He’s a great listener and excellent communicator, perhaps not a surprise given his extensive work in journalism. Evan also has the uncanny ability of knowing when and how an intervention in a political debate can have the greatest impact. He was one of the most quietly effective and useful members of the Board.
Marilyn Balcombe is running for Council At-Large. Marilyn is best known for her work in the Upcounty and on the President/CEO of the Gaithersburg/Germantown Chamber of Commerce. I’ve found Marilyn to be an effective and strong yet pleasant advocate. She has done a lot over the years to make Germantown a more vibrant place. Marilyn is someone who already knows a lot but also is smart enough to know that there is always more to learn and listens well.
Gabe Albornoz is running for Council At-Large. Gabe has headed the County Parks and Recreation Department and had the unpleasant task of dealing with major budget cuts due to the economic crisis. He lives in my legislative district and I got to know him through our mutual activity in local Democratic politics. Gabe is a natural leader yet also very easygoing and unusually good at dealing with criticism and bringing people together. A class act.
Hans Riemer is running for reelection to a third (and final) term for Council At-Large. I’m purposefully not focusing on incumbents on this list, as they’re already well known. However, I’ve always appreciated Hans’s ability to disagree without being disagreeable, even right after I’ve criticized a decision that he made. This well-liked councilmember has also consistently been willing to meet with people on the other side of an issue and work to figure out what he can do for them.
Marlin Jenkins is seeking election to the House of Delegates in District 19. He comes from a small town in Louisiana not far from where Ike Leggett grew up and is an impressive man who worked very hard to create and to take advantage of opportunities. Marlin joined the army at a young age, distinguished himself leading a unit in Iraq, and is now a major and still moving up. Along the way, he first earned a college and then law degree. He and his wife, also a lawyer who Marlin met in law school, have made their home here. An affable man and good listener, Marlin cares a lot about helping make it possible for others to move up the ladder too.
As someone in the unique position of watching the campaign season after 15 and a half years of being on the inside, I have pretty strong feelings about who are the right folks for electoral office.
Is that candidate well informed about the office he or she seeks?
Is that person an honest broker – ie – with the experience and grounding in reality that leads to genuine capacity for problem solving?
Is that person candid, or does that person have a different story for every audience?
Is that person humble or does that person take credit for shared initiatives or make promises that cannot be kept?
Does that person have the demonstrated temperament to treat people he or she disagrees with respectfully?
Is that person an independent thinker, or likely to be more influenced by endorsers?
Does that person have a track record of credible community engagement ?
Does that person have the backbone to stand up to political pressure?
Does that person have a genuine passion for the office, or is it just another job?
Does that person stand a chance in the General Election?
There are a lot of candidates out there, but not that many who satisfy my standards..
Here’s who I believe warrants your vote.
Noteworthy are my current council colleagues running for re- election – Hans Riemer, Craig Rice, Sid Katz, Nancy Navarro and Tom Hucker. We don’t all agree on everything all of the time, but they are hard working, committed and all have long histories of community engagement.
As for the open seats – these are my picks :
Governor – Rushern Baker. You try wrestling with an entrenched school system and come out alive! Tough, rational and caring.
County Executive – Rose Krasnow – an experienced, yet independent voice. The former Mayor of Rockville, she has wide ranging financial, government and nonprofit management expertise, and is deeply grounded in the county and community issues.
County Council At Large –
Gabe Albornoz – long experience with the reality of our community and the ways of government through the Recreation Department
Marilyn Balcombe – a long term fighter for the largely ignored upcounty
Evan Glass – a staunch community organizer, known for his work with the Gandhi Brigade
Council District 1 – Reggie Oldak – the only candidate who actually knows the county and how the Council works (as a former staff member) and a long time community advocate.
This is a very important election for our collective futures! Be thoughtful in your choices!
Whether they are right or wrong, MANY residents of Upcounty who communicate with your author feel that they are not treated as well by county government as their neighbors to the south. Council At-Large candidate Marilyn Balcombe, who lives in Germantown and is the CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, is tapping into that sentiment with this mailer sent to Upcounty residents. We think this is a smart move. With so many at-large candidates concentrating heavily on Downcounty’s Democratic Crescent and splitting the votes there, if Balcombe has Upcounty mostly to herself, she just might be able to fly under the radar to victory.
Today, we look at the Council At-Large candidates. As with yesterday, we start with a note on methodology. First, we calculate total raised and total spent across the entire cycle and not just over the course of one report period. Second, we separate self-funding from funds raised from others. Self-funding includes money from spouses. Third, for publicly financed candidates, we include public matching fund distributions that have been requested but not deposited in raised money and in the column entitled “Cash Balance With Requested Public Contributions.” That gives you a better idea of the true financial position of publicly financed campaigns.
Below is our fundraising summary for the Council At-Large candidates.
First, a few random notes. As of this writing, five at-large candidates – Craig Carozza-Caviness, Ron Colbert, Paul Geller, Richard Gottfried and Darwin Romero – have not filed May reports. Lorna Phillips Forde did file a May report and requested matching funds, but her report contains many duplicated entries and is a big mess. We are not printing her numbers until they get straightened out. Michele Riley has given herself a combined $21,000 in two loans and one contribution, which exceeds the $12,000 self-funding maximum allowed in public financing. That needs to be corrected or otherwise remedied.
Now to the numbers. In the pre-public financing days, winning at-large candidates generally raised $250,000 or more with the notable exception of Marc Elrich. Four candidates are in that territory: Hans Riemer (the only incumbent), Evan Glass, Bill Conway and Will Jawando. Gabe Albornoz and Hoan Dang are not far off. Delegate Charles Barkley (D-39) has not raised quite that much, but he started with a big war chest built over years of little competition in his district. The cash on hand leaders are Glass, Riemer and Barkley, who are virtually tied, followed by Conway and then Jawando.
In evaluating differences in cash position, we don’t find variances of $20,000-30,000 very significant. That’s because candidates schedule their expenditures differently. Some have spent a bit more before the deadline and some held back to show a bigger balance. What we do find significant is the difference between candidates who have close to $200,000 available for the final push – Riemer, Glass, Barkley and Conway – and those who have half that amount or less, such as Albornoz, Dang, Marilyn Balcombe, Jill Ortman-Fouse, Mohammad Siddique, Ashwani Jain, Danielle Meitiv, Seth Grimes and Brandy Brooks. (Forget about those who have $25,000 or less.) The latter group of candidates now faces very tough decisions on resource usage. A mailer to super-Dems can cost $35,000-$45,000 depending on how the universe is defined. So a candidate with $100,000 on hand might be able to squeeze out two or three mailers and that’s about it. Is that enough to stand out given all the other races going on?
Institutional endorsements also play a role. Several of the lesser funded candidates, especially Brooks and Meitiv, have some good endorsements that could help them. We think the biggest beneficiary will be MCPS teacher Chris Wilhelm, who has more cash on hand than Albornoz, Dang and Balcombe and also has the Apple Ballot. If the teachers mail for Wilhelm, that could effectively close the gap a bit between him and the top-funded candidates.
For what it’s worth, the conventional wisdom is that Riemer will be reelected, Glass and Jawando will join him and the last seat will come down to Conway or Albornoz. We’re not ready to buy that for a couple reasons. First, among the seven County Councils that have been elected since the current structure was established in 1990, only one – the 1998-2002 council – had zero at-large female members. Combine that with the fact that 60% of the primary electorate is female and it’s premature to write off all the women running. Second, this is an unprecedented year. We have never had public financing before and we have never had so many people running at-large. What seems like conventional wisdom now could seem very unwise in the blink of an eye! So we expect surprises in this historic election.
Council At-Large candidate Marilyn Balcombe has announced endorsements from three elected officials in Gaithersburg: Mayor Jud Ashman and City Council Members Mike Sesma and Neil Harris. Balcombe is the long-time President and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce and lives in Germantown. Gaithersburg, including both the incorporated and unincorporated areas, has more than 40,000 registered Democrats of whom roughly 3,500 have voted in each of the last three mid-term Democratic primaries.
Left to right: Sesma, Harris and Balcombe, Ashman. Credit: Balcombe for Council Facebook page.