Moments ago, the Montgomery County Republican Party issued the statement below.
Statement from MCRCC Chairman Reardon Sullivan:
Today’s rioting and violence in our nation’s capital is an absolutely devastating development during a time of historic upheaval and unrest.
The Montgomery County Republican Party unequivocally and wholeheartedly condemns all acts of lawlessness, rioting, and violence and disavows the actions of those demonstrators who illegally entered the U.S. Capitol Building. While we support peaceful protest, we reject any attempt to disrupt Congress’s certification of the election results. Congress must be allowed to conduct its business uninterrupted.
Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson Friedson authored Question A, which liberalized the county’s property tax system to allow receipts to increase with assessments. Wall Street applauded its passage. Even progressives, who don’t love Friedson but owe him big-time for opening up the county’s revenue stream, have to admit that his Question A was the real deal.
Council Member Evan Glass Glass authored Question C, which added two district council seats and defeated the nine district Question D. Lots of wannabe politicians are going to look at running for the new seats. Every single one of them should kiss Glass’s ring and write a max-out check to his campaign account.
County Democratic Party It’s not a coincidence that MoCo voters adopted the positions of the county Democratic Party on all four ballot questions. With partisan sentiments running high and information on the questions running low, MoCo Democrats went along with their party and dominated the election.
David Blair Blair was the number one contributor to the four ballot issue committees that passed Questions A and C and defeated Questions B and D. By himself, Blair accounted for nearly half the money they raised. Whatever Blair decides to do heading into the next election, he can claim to have done as much to pass the county Democrats’ positions on the ballot questions as anyone. (Disclosure: I have done work for Blair’s non-profit but I was not involved in his ballot question activities.)
Ike Leggett The former county executive was key in leading the fight against Robin Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. Thousands of MoCo voters still like, respect and trust Ike Leggett.
Jews United for Justice While not having the money and manpower of many other groups who played on the questions, Jews United for Justice played a key role in convening the coalition that ultimately won. They have gained a lot of respect from many influencers in MoCo politics.
Facebook Lord knows how much money they made from all the ballot question ads!
Robin Ficker At the beginning of 2020, MoCo had one of the most restrictive property tax charter limits of any county in Maryland. For many years, Ficker was looking to make it even tighter and petitioned Question B to the ballot to convert it into a near-lock on revenues. But his charter amendment provoked Friedson to write Question A, which ultimately passed while Question B failed and will raise much more money than the current system over time. Instead of tightening the current system, the result is a more liberal system that will achieve the opposite of what Ficker wanted – more revenue for the county. This was one of the biggest backfires in all of MoCo political history.
Republicans The county’s Republican Party did everything they could to pass Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. In particular, they gave both cash and in-kind contributions to Nine Districts and even raised money for the group on their website. In doing so, the GOP provoked a fierce partisan backlash as the county Democrats rose up to take the opposite positions on the ballot questions and most Democratic-leaning groups combined forces to support them. With President Donald Trump apparently defeated, Governor Larry Hogan leaving office in two years and little prospect of success in MoCo awaiting them, where does the county’s Republican Party go from here?
This tweet by MoCo for Question C from a voting location explains all you need to know about why Question D failed.
Political Outsiders It wasn’t just Republicans who supported the failed Questions B and D; a range of political outsiders supported them too. What they witnessed was a mammoth effort by the Democratic Party, Democratic elected officials and (mostly) progressive interest groups to thwart them. Even the county chamber of commerce and the realtors lined up against them. Whether or not it’s true, this is bound to provoke more talk of a “MoCo Machine.” Machine or not, outsiders have to be wondering how to win when establishment forces combine against them.
MCGEO, Fire Fighters and Police Unions These three unions are frustrated. They have not been treated the way they expected by the administration of County Executive Marc Elrich and they are also upset with the county council for abrogating their contracts (among other things). They wanted to show that they could impose consequences for messing with them and that was one reason why all three made thousands of dollars of in-kind contributions to Nine Districts. On the negative side, the nine districts Question D failed. On the positive side, the passage of Friedson’s Question A will result in a flow of more dollars into the county budget over time, a win for their members. So it’s a push. On to the next election.
On August 5, I reported that a combination of developers and county employee unions had accounted for most of the Nine Districts for MoCo group’s financial support. At that time, the leading contributors were:
Charles Nulsen, Washington Property Company: $50,000 UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO: $10,000 (in-kind) Bob Buchanan, Buchanan Partners: $5,000 Fraternal Order of Police: $5,000 (in-kind) Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association PAC: $5,000 (in-kind) Gingery Development Group: $5,000 Arlene Hillerson (listed as being in real estate): $2,000
Nulsen, Buchanan, Gingery and Hillerson are all in the real estate industry. As of August 5, the four comprised 94% of Nine Districts’ cash receipts.
On August 13, I reported that a number of prominent county Republicans, including seven members of the county party’s central committee, had supported Nine Districts with cash or in-kind contributions. Republicans support a nine district council structure because they believe it might lead to a Republican council seat.
The county Republican Party is asking voters to vote for Question D, which would create nine council districts.
On August 24, Nine Districts amended its financial reports and new information about its contributors is now available. Of notable interest is that Gingery Development Group contributed another $25,000 on August 3 and Willco, a Potomac developer, directed a $15,000 contribution to the group’s campaign consultant, Rowland Strategies of Baltimore, on August 5. If Willco’s contribution, listed as in-kind but relieving the group’s obligation to Rowland, is counted as a cash contribution, that means that 96% of Nine Districts’ cash support has come from developers.
Botwin’s contact info on the MoCo GOP’s website. His phone number has been redacted.
The line between Botwin and Nine Districts is already drawn through the MoCo Republican Party, which supports Nine Districts and lists Botwin as its volunteer contact. If Botwin is more directly involved in Nine Districts than that, that would be big news in MoCo politics.
The Montgomery County Republican Party is now running this video attacking Council Member Will Jawando over his efforts to reform the police department.
The GOP is even running a Facebook ad to promote the video.
Not everyone is supportive of the county’s efforts to reform, reimagine and/or defund the police. Our post on the subject, “Free-For-All,” is on track to be the most-viewed post on Seventh State for this month. But getting attacked by Republicans is great for Jawando in building his prestige inside the county’s progressive Democratic base. Jawando should consider offering a subsidy to help the GOP run the ad in Takoma Park and the rest of the Democratic Crescent!
In Part One, I explained the primary reason why the county’s Republican Party leadership supports Nine Districts, even going so far as to use the party’s official website to raise money for the group. The Republicans believe that having nine county council districts instead of five could produce one (or more) districts in which Republicans could compete. Using 2018 general election data, I built a 32-precinct district that accounts for one-ninth of the county’s registered voters and maximized Republican electoral participation while minimizing Democratic participation. (I used registered voters as an admittedly imperfect proxy for population.) Here is what my so-called Red District looks like on a precinct map.
The Red District has the strongest presence of Republicans and the weakest presence of Democrats of any contiguous district I can construct. But could it actually elect a Republican to the county council? Let’s find out.
First, let’s compare the eligible voters by party as of the 2018 general election between the county as a whole and the Red District.
In the county as a whole, Democrats had a 43-point advantage over Republicans in eligible voters. In the Red District, the Democratic advantage shrank to 13 points. Democrats still held a plurality in the Red District, but with 44% of eligible voters, they were not a majority.
Now let’s look at actual voters.
Among actual voters, Democrats had a 48-point advantage over Republicans countywide. (2018 was a year in which Democrats were highly motivated to vote by the current occupant of the White House.) But in the Red District, the Democratic advantage shrank to 16 points. Once again, Democrats were a plurality but not a majority of Red District voters.
The table below shows the performance of the two major-party gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Ben Jealous and Republican Larry Hogan, in the county as a whole and in the Red District. Only election day votes are shown because precinct data does not include other voting modes.
Jealous won the election day vote countywide by 5 points. (Counting all voting modes, Jealous won MoCo by 11 points.) But in the Red District, Hogan blew out Jealous by 33 points on election day. Clearly, the Red District is VERY different from the rest of the county in its preference for governor.
But Hogan is an unusual Republican whose popularity extends well into the Democratic voting base. Judging a propensity to favor the GOP by looking at Hogan’s vote tallies alone is problematic. And so, as a proxy for hypothetical support for a generic Republican, I calculated the combined votes for the Democratic council at-large candidates (Gabe Albornoz, Evan Glass, Will Jawando and Hans Riemer) and the Republican council at-large candidates (Robert Dyer, Chris Fiotes, Penny Musser and Shelly Skolnick) for both the county as a whole and the Red District. Those results are shown in the table below.
In the county as a whole, the Democratic council at-large candidates totally blew out the Republicans by 72-26%. That’s why the Republican leadership hates the at-large seats as much as they do – Democrats can roll up their vote totals in Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Kensington and Republicans can’t pick up enough votes elsewhere to win. But in the Red District, the Democratic council at-large candidates only had a 6-point edge. Compared to the rest of the county, that’s a narrow margin.
Let’s remember that 2018 saw massive Democratic turnout in reaction to the individual in the Oval Office. That makes it an unusual year. Given that fact, the above data suggests that in a more normal year, a strong Republican council candidate could defeat a weak Democrat in the Red District. That’s the dream of MoCo Republicans. And that’s why they support Nine Districts.
Now, would something like the Red District actually be created in a nine district system? That’s hard to know. Redistricting is nominally within the purview of a commission appointed by the council every ten years, but the council can substitute its own map if they wish. That means if Nine Districts passes, council Democrats will effectively design the districts directly or indirectly. They could scatter rural Republicans around two or three districts (perhaps one based in Potomac, another based in Clarksburg and maybe a third based in Damascus). Doing that would create two or three competitive general elections. Or they could do what state-level Democrats did in designing the current congressional districts, which was to pack Republicans in one district (Congressman Andy Harris’s District 1). If they elected to go that route, they would design something very close to my Red District.
One thing is for sure: the Republican Party would be jumping up and down to get a chance to compete. They don’t have that in the current system. But they might have it if voters approve nine districts.
In a prior column, I noted the participation of many county Republican Party leaders in the Nine Districts group. These leaders even went so far as to use the party’s official website to raise money for the Nine Districts campaign fund. Why is the GOP’s local leadership so interested in eliminating at-large county council seats and replacing them with nine districts?
The answer is simple: nine districts might be the only way they can get a Republican elected to the county council.
It’s important to remember that the council has not always been unanimously Democratic. District 1 (Bethesda-Chevy Chase-Potomac) elected two Republican council members: Betty Ann Krahnke (1990-2000) and Howard Denis (2000-2006). District 2 (Upcounty) was represented by Republican Nancy Dacek from 1990 through 2002. Those were the days when Republican Congresswoman Connie Morella represented most of MoCo – a much less partisan time. District 2, which represents much of Upcounty, is the most Republican-heavy council district in the county. Its current seat holder, Council Member Craig Rice, has won his last three general elections with 59% of the vote in 2010, 60% of the vote in 2014 and 71% of the vote in 2018. The shift of the GOP from being the party of Morella to the party of Donald Trump has brought hard times to local Republicans.
Nine districts could resuscitate the party. That’s because a change from five districts to nine districts could allow enough Republicans and independents to congregate into one district to make it competitive in a general election. That is clearly what the county’s Republican leadership is hoping for. But could it actually happen? Could dark blue MoCo – even the reddest one-ninth of it – ever elect a Republican again?
To test that hypothesis, I pulled precinct-level data from the 2018 general election. I used the following criteria to select precincts that would form the most Republican-intensive district possible in the county:
Lowest percentage of registered Democrats Highest percentage of registered Republicans Lowest percentage of actual voting Democrats Highest percentage of actual voting Republicans Lowest percentage of votes going to Democratic council at-large candidates Highest percentage of votes going to Republican council at-large candidates
There were two additional requirements. First, the precincts had to be geographically contiguous. (No random splatters of territory like Maryland’s Third Congressional District!) And second, the precincts had to contain one-ninth of the county’s registered voters, which I used as a proxy for population.
In practice, this turned out to be pretty easy since 23 precincts met all six of the above criteria. Two more met five criteria, three more met four criteria and two more met two criteria. Two precincts met none of the criteria but they had to be included to make the district contiguous. A few others did well on qualifying criteria too but were either non-contiguous or created difficulty in keeping the district at the appropriate size. All of this reinforces a central fact: in MoCo, partisanship is heavily geographic.
And so here it is: 32 precincts containing 73,269 eligible voters as of the 2018 general election, almost exactly one-ninth of the total registered voters in the county. (Again, I’m using registered voters as an admittedly imperfect proxy for population.)
Let’s call this the Red District. Here is what it looks like on a map.
The Red District has the shape of a jagged “C” and hugs the western Potomac River, the Frederick County border and the Howard County border. Its largest communities are Clarksburg, Damascus, Poolesville and part of Potomac. It is not geographically compact, but it does have a community of interest because it includes the least dense, and most rural, parts of the county. Its shape was inevitable. These are the areas where Republicans are strongest and Democrats are weakest.
How would the Red District have voted in the 2018 general election? We will find out in Part Two.
Seven members of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, the governing body of the MoCo GOP, have given the Nine Districts for MoCo group money, in-kind contributions or both. So have other leaders of the county Republican Party.
The Nine Districts campaign finance reports reveal the following transactions between GOP Central Committee Members and the organization.
County GOP Central Committee Members Who Gave Money
Greg Decker (Legislative District 39) made two monetary contributions of $100 each on 6/1/20 and 7/10/20.
Paul Foldi (Legislative District 16) contributed $100 on 2/5/20.
Lorraine Jaffe (At-Large) contributed $100 on 2/5/20.
Reardon Sullivan (Legislative District 15) contributed $200 on 6/6/20.
County GOP Central Committee Members Who Gave In-Kind Contributions
Martha Schaerr (Legislative District 19) made three in-kind contributions totaling $132.77 for an outdoor banner and printing petitions on 8/12/19 and 8/14/19.
Gail Weiss (Legislative District 16) made a $120 in-kind contribution for hats and caps on 1/15/20.
Reardon Sullivan (Legislative District 15) made a $20 in-kind contribution on 2/25/20 for “proportional use of PC video editing software.”
Ann Hingston (At-Large) made four in-kind contributions totaling $499.43 for office supplies, printed materials and U.S. Post Box rental.
Hingston also wrote this piece on the county Republicans’ website advocating for Nine Districts and asking for financial contributions to the group.
Other party leaders have helped Nine Districts. Sharon Bauer, president of the Montgomery County Federation of Republican Women, gave $50 to the group on 2/13/20. Ryan Gniadek, the contact for the Montgomery County Federation of Teenage Republicans, gave $15 to the group on 1/23/20. And Ed Amatetti, the Republican nominee for County Council District 2 in 2018, gave $25 to the group on 12/26/19. The checks are small but the dots to be connected are many.
Nine Districts is not a solely Republican group. Developers are paying the vast majority of its costs, county employee unions are providing thousands of dollars in in-kind support and lots of people beyond those groups support the concept. But the presence of this many Republican party officials among its supporters as well as the use of the county GOP’s website to raise money for Nine Districts is not a coincidence. Passing the 9 district charter amendment is a big priority for county Republicans.
Nine Districts for MoCo, the group seeking to replace the current county council structure of 5 district seats and 4 at-large seats with 9 district seats, claimed earlier today that it has obtained 15,000 signatures for its proposed charter amendment. Under the state’s constitution, a charter amendment proposed by voters must receive valid signatures from not less than 20% of registered voters or at least 10,000 voters. The group’s Facebook post appears below.
The original deadline for receipt of petition signatures was Monday, July 27. However, the State Board of Elections extended the deadline by one week due to the COVID-19 crisis, meaning that the group may submit its signatures to the county on Monday, August 3. The county board of elections must then verify the signatures to ensure that the 9 district charter amendment qualifies for the ballot.
The group’s declaration was shared on Facebook by the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, the Montgomery County Republican Club, the Republican District 16 Team, the Conservative Club of Maryland and former Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Mark Uncapher.
The Montgomery County Republican Party has alleged on its website and through blast email that the county council is “sneaking in” a tax hike. County GOP Chairman Alexander A. Bush wrote:
At a time when unemployment claims in Montgomery County have increased by 4,717% since the first week of March, our County Council has agreed with County Executive Elrich to give notice that they are “considering” an increase in the property tax rate “4.5% higher than the constant yield tax rate [which] will generate $62,978,926 in additional property tax revenues.”
Mr. Elrich admitted in his March 15th budget proposal that the current COVID-19 crisis will exacerbate the decline of income tax revenues in the County. But rather than tightening its belt, like families and private businesses must do, Mr. Elrich asked the County Council to drastically increase property taxes to make up the difference.
I was heartened by the March 16th response from eight of the councilmembers: “this is a time for cautious decision-making, not property tax increases.” And thus, I was surprised by the County Council’s notice on Thursday that they were, in fact, “considering” the full tax increase.
At a time when small businesses throughout the County are closing their doors and desperately hoping to survive long enough to reopen, this proposed property tax increase is obscene. This may be why the County Council has worked so hard to hide it from the public. Thursday’s legally-mandated notice in the print edition of the Washington Post is the only trace of it. The notice is not published online and the Council’s calendar entry for the April 21st meeting makes no mention of it. This notice was allegedly approved at the Council’s March 31st meeting, however (and possibly in violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act) the recording shows no discussion of this issue whatsoever. In fact, it was approved unanimously – and without any debate – as part of the “consent calendar,” which is reserved for uncontroversial matters.
Is the GOP right? Does this constitute “sneaking in” a tax hike?
It is true that the county executive proposed a property tax hike in his recommended budget that was promptly rejected by 8 council members. But that fact is actually irrelevant to the advertisement taken out in the Washington Post. The advertisement was mandated by state law regarding increases in property tax rates above the constant yield tax rate, which is defined as “the General Fund real property tax rate for the coming fiscal year that would generate the same amount of revenue that was generated during the current fiscal year.” The state law is extremely specific on the wording, style, placement and timing of the advertisement. It even requires that the county send the advertisement to the state to prove that it is following state law.
An excerpt from the county Republicans’ website.
The county’s standard practice is to exceed the constant yield tax rate but to restrict the growth in property tax collections to the rate of inflation, which is consistent with the county’s charter limit. Staying within the charter limit does not constitute a tax hike. In contrast to MoCo, most other Maryland counties lack charter limits on property taxes at all. In times of rising assessments, these other counties can leave their property tax rates constant and their collections can easily rise faster than inflation. (Let’s note that many of these counties are governed by Republicans!)
As to the GOP’s allegation that this notice was somehow hidden from the public, that is absolutely false. All of the details were contained in a staff memo posted in plain view on the council’s website. The memo includes the language of the newspaper advertisement which we reprint below.
This is perfectly consistent with past practice even when the executive is not proposing a tax hike. Here are the council resolutions on newspaper advertisements for constant yield tax rates from 2018 and 2019, when the county executive did not propose and the council did not pass property tax hikes.
And so there is no “sneaking” of any kind. The county followed state law on newspaper advertisements, a requirement that has nothing to do with decisions on tax increases. It would seem that the Montgomery County Republican Party has a problem with the county obeying state law.
There are two possibilities accounting for the Republicans’ argument: mendacity or ignorance. Neither is a good reason for why they should replace the Democrats in power.