Unions pooling resources to defeat Hough in Frederick with opening salvo on abortion rights

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Two Maryland unions have joined forces to form a political action committee whose first order of business has been to run a TV ad attacking state Sen. Michael Hough, the Republican nominee for county executive who is in a close race with County Councilmember Jessica Fitzwater (D).

The Maryland State Education Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 44 have launched a political action committee called Marylanders for Freedom and Opportunity. The PAC began airing an ad on Monday spotlighting Hough’s record on abortion rights.

“The basic right to choose is at stake,” a narrator says at the top of the 30-second ad. “But Mike Hough has been attacking it for years.”

The ad then features footage of Hough from a 2019 Facebook chat. “I am pro-life and proudly so,” he says in the clip. “I believe that we need to protect life from conception.”

The ad lists some of Hough’s legislative votes on reproductive rights while the narrator resumes.

“He’s repeatedly tried to restrict and ban abortion in Maryland and refused to protect women’s health care. And now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe, Hough’s extreme views are more dangerous to us than ever. And he’s running to be our county executive. So don’t let Hough bring his extreme agenda home to us.”

According to a campaign finance report, Marylanders for Freedom and Opportunity has spent $80,900 so far on the ad, sending the money to Wavelength Media, a Democratic media firm in Washington, D.C. The filing with the Maryland State Board of Elections did not list campaign contributions to the PAC, but Travis Tazelaar, a veteran Democratic operative who is working as a strategist for the organization, said the teachers’ union and the IBEW are the sole donors so far.

In a statement to Maryland Matters, Hough characterized the attack ad as an attempt to distract voters.

“Jessica Fitzwater and her radical allies are desperately trying to talk about anything other than there actual issues a county executive will address,” he said. “They know that Frederick County voters do not want Jessica Fitzwater’s radical agenda of higher taxes and high-density housing as they work to turn Frederick into Montgomery County North.”

Hough launched a TV ad of his own on Monday, which focuses on crime and features Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who carried Frederick County with almost 68% of the vote four years ago.

“Public safety is a top issue for me, and I know it’s a top issue for Mike Hough,” Hogan says in the 30-second ad. “Mike Hough and I have worked together for the last several years. He has supported our efforts to refund the police…He’s going to get the bad guys off the streets and make things safer. Mike Hough, he just wants to get things done. He’s not a grand-stander. He’s not into performance politics. He is the kind of guy who tries to bring people together. Join me in supporting Mike Hough for Frederick County executive.”

Hough said he will spend $25,000 a week to air the ad in the Frederick market.

Tazelaar, a seasoned Democratic strategist who was executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party when Martin O’Malley (D) was governor and was campaign manager for Ben Jealous, Hogan’s Democratic challenger in 2018, said the ad against Hough is just the beginning for the PAC.

The two unions, he said, are “trying to put a coalition together” of other groups that may want to contribute to the PAC. How the PAC spends its time and money going forward will depend on the desires of its contributors.

“We’re focused mostly on Hough for now but we are looking for other opportunities to play in other close county races and statewide races,” Tazelaar said.

The Hough-Fitzwater race seems a microcosm of the politics that are playing out in competitive elections across the country: Republicans are largely trying to focus on pocketbook issues, inflation and crime, while Democrats are emphasizing abortion and potential Republican threats to the democratic process in the U.S.

“Mike Hough’s extreme agenda is focused on taking away women’s freedom to make personal decisions and access the health care they need,” said Marylanders for Freedom and Opportunity Chair Elizabeth Paul, a Washington County resident and teacher in the Frederick County Public Schools who ran unsuccessfully for a House of Delegates seat in 2014. “We should have leaders who protect our freedoms — not extreme politicians like Mike Hough who try to take them away.”

Hough, Tazelaar asserted, “seems very motivated to talk about anything but abortion. So we’re motivated to tell people how he’s been working hard to ban abortion in the state.”

The PAC’s ad is the second independent expenditure of the general election on Fitzwater’s behalf. Earlier this month, the Maryland State Education Association’s Fund for Children and Public Education Political Action Committee began airing a spot on Frederick County cable channels and digital platforms praising Fitzwater. The teachers’ union has spent at least $72,900 on the ad, according to campaign finance reports.

Through Aug. 23, Fitzwater had about $118,000 in her campaign treasury compared to $434,000 for Hough. The two are vying to replace term-limited County Executive Jan Gardner (D), an ally of Fitzwater’s.

Fitzwater is an elementary school music teacher in Frederick County — and a former leader of the local teachers’ union. But by law she is not allowed to coordinate the unions and other entities funding the PACs and independent expenditure campaigns.

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