A super political action committee opposed to Nancy Floreen’s bid for Montgomery County executive hit the airwaves this week with an advertisement that is critical of her reliance on contributions from the business community.
The spot, set to air on various cable channels, was produced by the Progressive Maryland Liberation Alliance PAC, a Progressive Maryland-affiliated coalition that includes the Montgomery County Government Employees Union, the teachers’ union, CASA de Maryland, Jews for Justice Campaign Fund and others.
The groups are supporting the Democratic nominee for county executive, County Councilman Marc B. Elrich.
Larry Stafford Jr., Progressive Maryland’s executive director, said the ad will spotlight the outsized role that county businesses — particularly developers — have played in funding both Floreen’s campaign and the independent super PAC that is promoting her candidacy.
“Marc Elrich has been a champion of everyday Montgomery County residents, while Floreen is choosing to run as an independent, leaving the Democratic Party to pursue the agenda of real estate developer interests,” he said.
Floreen, a term-limited member of the County Council and a lifelong Democrat, changed her party registration to unaffiliated in August when Elrich emerged the winner of the Democratic primary and attorney Robin Ficker won the Republican primary. She did so, she said, at the behest of business leaders and others who found the major party nominees to be lacking.
Her decision has produced an unpredictable three-way affair, with an array of outside groups raising money — some of it disclosed, some not — and preparing to flood voter mailboxes as Election Day draws near.
The message from the Progressive Maryland PAC dovetails with the themes being sounded by a second anti-Floreen PAC that was created in September, Montgomery Neighbors. On its website, the Montgomery Neighbors PAC encourages voters to “Say NO to 90% Nancy.”
“We have an unprecedented situation right now where Ms. Floreen is accepting 90% of her campaign contributions from one special interest — the development industry,” said PAC founder Drew Powell in an interview.
Floreen, who was first elected in 2002 as part of the End Gridlock slate headed by then-county executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) – who is supporting Floreen – has heard it all before.
“This issue Drew Powell and his cohorts have thrown at me for many, many years,” she said. “I have been proud to lead the Council in an unending series of 8-1 votes in planning for our future. And this is not about bricks and mortar. This is about the future of communities, a future of employment and a future of opportunity. That’s what I’ve been doing and I’m really proud of it.”
In a statement, Montgomery Neighbors Co-chairwoman Marsha Coleman-Adebayo insisted, “We are not against development. But we want fair development, we want balanced development, and we want all who profit to share in the cost of infrastructure — roads, schools, safety, parks, environmental protection.”
Former County Councilman Steve Silverman (D), an adviser to County Above Party, a super PAC created in September to support Floreen’s candidacy, said accusations of “pay to play” politics date back to at least the 1960s.
“This is a playbook that has been used for 50 or more years in Montgomery County and throughout the country,” he said. “It’s to demonize the people who build housing and attract businesses in the county in the same way that people attack Big Tobacco and the pharmaceutical industry.”
“I would respectfully suggest that Drew Powell did not build his own house,” he added.
Silverman said that if Montgomery Neighbors was genuinely interested in voter education and transparency they would also focus on union-backed attacks on David T. Blair, who lost the Democratic primary to Elrich by 77 votes.
Parts of Montgomery County have long been off-limits to development because of a lack of school capacity, said Silverman, a former county economic development official. The inability to create more housing puts upward pricing pressure on the homes that exist.
“Nancy Floreen led the fight to increase money going toward school construction,” he said. “It’s not surprising that the people who are building housing for families and millennials in Montgomery County should support a champion of school construction and affordable housing.”
Money flowing into the County Above Party PAC — $155,000 as of late September, according to the latest filing with the state Board of Elections — has come almost exclusively from developments firms.
Charles K. Nulsen III, president of Washington Property Co., contributed $35,000. Buchanan Partners LLC gave $20,000. Linowes and Blocher, Rodgers Consulting and Minkoff Development Corp. all kicked in $10,000 each, and one address — 5530 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1000, reported to be a property management firm — ponied up $22,000.
Unlike candidate committees, which operate under state-imposed contribution limits, super PACs can accept unlimited donations. They may not coordinate with the candidates they are supporting.
Under state law, super PACs do not have to file updated reports until they spend more than $10,000, regardless of how much they raise.
The pro-Floreen PAC paid $40,000 to Gonzales Research, a public opinion firm, leaving it with $115,000 cash on hand at the time.
“The only reason why County Above Party got on the radar screen was because of paying for the poll,” said Silverman. “The only question for the general election is ‘when is the union-backed PAC going to come out of the shadows?’”
Indeed, Stafford, of Progressive Maryland, wasn’t ready to disclose how much money his coalition has raised or how they’ve spent it. But now that they’re spending money on TV spots, he said a report will be filed “very soon.”
Floreen rejects the suggestion that “90 percent” of her campaign contributions are coming from the development community. “I’m receiving contributions from all kinds of people,” she said.
“In the past, the things that they put in the category of ‘developer contributions’ are anything that’s ever been associated with the business function. They called Safeway a developer. Marriott is a developer now. That’s what they will do,” she said, adding, “It’s a political game they’re playing. I’m used to it.”
Floreen also denied she would do the business community’s bidding if elected, or be more likely to take calls from corporate leaders because of their support.
“That’s nuts. I never have done that,” she said. “Talk to any community member, any community group that’s come in to talk with me. I don’t pigeon-hole people. I listen to everyone.”
Ficker and Elrich are participating in the county’s new public financing system, which is designed to encourage small donations by providing significant matching funds. Floreen is not.
Elrich had more than $391,000 in his campaign account as of Oct. 1 while Ficker reported $236,000 on hand. Elrich has requested an additional $188,000 from the public financing system while Ficker has requested a more modest $8,000.
Because she is not in the public financing system, Floreen does not have to release a campaign finance report until Oct. 26. Due to her late start, she has had to do some catch-up. She acknowledged that her campaign recently returned $18,000 in contributions from a firm whose LLC offshoots apparently exceeded a new state law.
Montgomery Neighbors, the newer of the anti-Floreen PACs, has yet to file a campaign finance statement.
Powell, the founder, expressed confidence his organization will raise enough to do mailings, if nothing more.
“This is a David and Goliath situation,” he said. “You’ve got an industry that literally is worth billions and they are able to raise millions if necessary and will raise at least $1 million on behalf of Ms. Floreen, which is lunch money for these folks.”
“On the other hand you have citizens who are out there raising $10 and $50 and $100 at a clip.”