None of the potential donors listening to Montgomery County Council hopeful Danielle Meitiv make her pitch Sunday had paid for the right to be there.
An at-large candidate, Meitiv stood before a crowd of roughly 40 people at Coffee Republic in Rockville for a “meet and greet.”
Some ordered coffee. Others nibbled on pastries. Several asked Meitiv questions, including why she is participating in the county’s new public financing program, which she and others say has changed what it means in Montgomery to run a political campaign.
“Normally, what candidates have had to do is they’ve had to spend most of their time on the phone talking to a few rich people, and then, when they can, they go out and talk to voters,” Meitiv answered, according to a video recording of the event. “That shouldn’t be two different groups of people.”
With less than one year before the 2018 primary, nearly two dozen candidates for the council have declared their interest in qualifying for matching public funds by collecting a certain number of individual donations that are between $5 and $150.
Those running for district seats must raise at least $10,000, with a minimum of 125 donations, to qualify for their first installment. At-large candidates must collect at least 250 donations totaling $20,000. And county executive hopefuls must reach at least 500 donations that total $40,000.
Candidates hoping to qualify for the public financing program are prohibited from accepting corporate or PAC contributions.
As a result, many of the fixtures of modern-day campaigning – invitation-only fundraisers requiring hefty donations in advance, pitches to small but powerful groups of wealthy donors – have fallen by the wayside.
In fact, candidates hoping to secure matching funds say their campaigns have reimagined their fundraising approaches altogether.
“It connects fundraising to outreach. It’s not one or the other,” Meitiv said in an interview, adding that free, open-to-the-public events naturally draw more diverse crowds than private gatherings, where attendance is often dictated by the host.
Two candidates – longtime members of Montgomery’s political establishment – have already qualified for matching funds: at-large council members George Leventhal (D) and Hans Riemer (D).
Leventhal said his campaign received an initial distribution of matching funds of just under $200,000 and has filed to request a second installment of nearly $13,000.
In past campaigns, it was more efficient to spend time with donors “who have the capability to write very large checks,” he said. Now, “that has changed entirely.”
“I’m sitting on a bank balance of $200,000,” Leventhal said. “If I was raising money the old way, I don’t know that I would have raised $200,000 by now.”
Reggie Oldak, a former aide to Council President Roger Berliner, D-Potomac-Bethesda, who is now running for that District 1 seat, said she was not even sure what to call an October fundraiser featuring former State Sen. Sharon Grosfeld.
“We have to rethink terminology,” said Oldak, who submitted a campaign finance report Tuesday seeking public matching funds. “On the one hand, we’re going to have a ‘fundraiser,’ but it’s not going to require a contribution, necessarily.”
Phil Andrews, a former council member and the architect behind the public finance law, said he’s observed a strong contrast between events held by candidates seeking to use the public finance system and those engaging in traditional, high-dollar events.
“There’s an emphasis on all individuals, cutting out the middleman, cutting out the bundlers and going directly to the people,” Andrews said. “It’s very democratic.”
Qualifying for matching funds is not without its logistical and technical challenges. A detailed receipt is required for all contributions submitted to the state board of elections. Qualifying contributions must include an original or digital signature as well as a current residential address in Montgomery County.
“There’s always some little wrinkle, like they gave us a post office box,” said Chris Wilhelm (D), an at-large candidate. “Now we’ve got to chase them down.”
Later this month, Wilhelm is holding a coffee shop fundraiser geared toward issues he believes will be of interest to younger county residents – such as combating the student debt crisis and expanding educational opportunities for lower-income county residents. The ticket price is $10.
Peter Fosselman, a Democratic candidate for District 1, said he decided against the public finance program because he doesn’t believe the county is in a financial position to fund private campaigns.
He said he would rather see the $11 million budgeted for matching funds go toward hiring new teachers or creating housing for the homeless. On Wednesday night, Fosselman held a fundraiser with suggested contribution categories of $35, $100, $250, $500 and $1,000.
For Andrews, one of the key benefits of the public finance law ultimately boils down to “incentive-based politics.”
“It’s a system that creates an incentive to do that which didn’t exist before,” he said. “And candidates respond to incentive.”