Friday, April 17, 2009

Special Interest Contributions in the District 4 Election

By Drew Powell.

It always good to know where candidates stand on the issues and what may drive their decision making processes regarding their future voting records, should they be elected. Concerned voters may cast their ballots based on a candidate’s existing voting record (if any), what that candidate says about the issues (debates, mailers, other media, etc.), completed questionnaires, who endorses them, with whom they are politically allied, their sources of funds for running their campaigns (also an indication of allegiances) and the candidate’s charisma.

I believe that many would agree that most of the above are highly subjective and left up to one’s own political leanings and conscience. One of the items on the above list is a bit less subjective, “sources of funds” (i.e. campaign finance).

Campaign finance, the basics

For the most part, the Maryland legislature feels strongly about transparency in campaign finance (with exceptions like the “LLC Loophole…” maybe a future post). For many decades they have supported and funded (with your tax dollars) the State Board of Elections (BOE) in its efforts to report on candidate, slate, PAC and other campaign committee donations and expenditures. Since January 1998, these reports have been made available online. Any citizen, who wants to see this information for themselves, can sit in the comfort of their home and view candidates’ financial reports. At first this may this may seem rather boring, however, these contributions can sometimes tell their own, very interesting story. I urge everyone I speak with about this issue NOT to take it from me or anyone else… but to go online and see for themselves. If more voters did this, the outcome of many elections, and subsequent life-impacting legislation that those elected officials enact, might be very different. Visit the Maryland State Board of Elections and see for yourself.

What can you expect when you go to the State Board of Elections’ web site? Once you navigate to the “Search for Contributions” area, you will be asked to input some data to search on, such as a candidate’s name. Once this is done, assuming that the candidate has taken any contributions from 1998 forward, you will see a list, with column headings as follows: Candidates Account, Contributor Name (Address), Amount, Date Received and Contribution Type. Yes, if you donate to any state or county campaign committee (not federal or municipal), your name and FULL address appears in this public domain, online database. You might see contributions from people and/or businesses you know (Verizon, PEPCO, etc.). Even if you don’t know them, sometimes it can be obvious as to what business they’re in (XYZ Construction Company, ABC Auto Repair, etc.) However, there are usually many more that you don’t know who they are or what special interest they might represent. Many of these individuals and companies have given thousands of dollars.

That’s where “campaign finance research” comes in. There are many national and regional organizations that devote huge resources to this issue. Some of the more famous include:, and From 2003 through 2008, Neighbors for a Better Montgomery (NeighborsPAC) served that function in Montgomery County’s 2002 and 2006 elections. I was honored for a time to be the executive director of NeighborsPAC.

Of the many services NeighborsPAC provided, one was campaign finance research, which we made available online, very much in the same way some of the above-listed national organizations do. It can be very tedious evaluating tens of thousands of contributions, which is why NeighborsPAC decided to prioritize by what was then (and still is) the largest amount contributed to local politicians by a special interest group, the development industry.

Why pick on the development industry?

Let’s start by setting the record straight. Many developers and development related individuals (and businesses) are, in many cases, Montgomery County citizens, who have just as much a right to vote and give money to the candidates of their choice as any other citizen. Developers serve a much needed purpose in our county, as they build the homes we live in and the stores and offices we frequent. But keep in mind that development is a FOR-profit business and as such, like any good business much is done to try to maximize profits. If they don’t do this, they go out of business. The question then becomes, in the area of our legislative system and the possible influence the development industry may have; just what is legal or not, ethical or not, in or out of balance or simply is transparent or opaque?

According to NeighborsPAC research, in the 2002 Montgomery County Election, more than $2.5M was donated by the development industry (about 70% of all monies given during that election cycle). In 2006, development related contributions totaled more than $4M (again, about 70%). According to NeighborsPAC research, one 2006 candidate received more than 71% (more than $1M) from development related interests. I’ll make a prediction now, that for the 2010 County Election, about $6M (again, about 2 out of every 3 dollars) will come from the development industry.

Why would developers care about elections?

If the County Council (with its mandate to make law and establish county code) and the County Executive (with his/her mandate to set the county’s agenda) voted on pharmaceutical drug regulation, believe me, the pharmaceutical drug industry would be a big player in county politics, making big contributions. As far as an industry is concerned, the one that is impacted the most by our County Council and Executive is the development industry. This comes in the form of county legislation regarding: zoning, master plans, impact taxes, transportation infrastructure (and who pays for it), schools (and again, who pays for it), etc. Arguably, it’s the biggest role the Council and Executive play. Keep in mind; we’re talking about BIG bucks. The development industry in Montgomery County alone is worth many tens of billions of dollars. What the County Council does can be a great benefit or hindrance to the development industry and its bottom line.

So what’s a developer to do? If you’ve been a developer for long, you know how the game is played. Even so, you hire $500 Land use/zoning attorneys and turn to the services of companies such as Rodgers Consulting. These “investments” will, for a lot of money, help you increase your chances of getting that zoning change or ZTA (zoning text amendment) or better yet, help you and your industry “Control Elections and Influence Legislation [and] Regulation.” Those aren’t my words, but guidance from Rodgers Consulting Inc. in a 2004 International Builders Show presentation, “Where's the Land?”

So, just what is a development related interest? A 'development-related interest' is defined as an individual, company or organization that benefits financially (directly or indirectly) from business activities related to land development in Montgomery County. Examples of those who may benefit directly are: developers, builders, construction companies, realtors, etc. Examples of those who may benefit indirectly are: Land use/zoning attorneys, developer consultants, development supply companies, development related unions/PACs/advocacy groups, etc.

Using neutral methodologies (applying the same rules to all), in an unflinching manor (i.e. report whenever and whoever meets the above definition for every candidate), NeighborsPAC identified thousands of development related campaign contributions made to county council and executive candidates. This was done by using other online databases and search engines. The same methods were employed in identifying development related contributions and funding sources in the 2009 District 4 special election.

District 4 summary

Here’s a summary of the District 4 Special Election campaign finance picture so far:

Lou August: $0 in reported contributions as of the 4/10/2009 filing (filed affidavit stating that his campaign received less than $1000)

Michael Bigler: One contribution from himself in the amount of $500.00 on 03/13/2009

Robin Ficker: $0 in reported contributions as of 4/10/2009 filing (filed affidavit stating that his campaign received less than $1000)

George Gluck: Four contributions totaling $230.00 as of 4/10/2009 filing

Rob Goldman: $0 in reported contributions as of 4/10/2009 filing (filed affidavit stating that his campaign received less than $1000)

Thomas Hardman: Four contributions totaling $226.07 as of 4/10/2009 filing

Ben Kramer: 15 contributions totaling $2,875.00 total as of 4/10/2009 filing, however as much as $50,000.00 was received in loans from himself (see below and spread sheet)

Cary Lamari: 43 contributions totaling $4,432.00 and $10,000.00 loan to self as of 4/10/2009 filing (see spread sheet)

Nancy Navarro: In violation of Maryland State law, has not filed with the State Board of Elections as of 4/16/09 and has accrued $80.00 of fines thus far (candidates pay fines of $20/day for the first six business days late, $10/business day thereafter). Navarro has filed through March 24, 2009 and also has completed all filing for the 2008 special election. (see spread sheets)

District 4 specifics

It costs money to run a campaign. It’s hard for me to see how a serious candidate can get out their message with little or no funds. Based on the State Board of Elections database, it appears that there are only three candidates on which to perform campaign finance analysis. Those are (in alphabetical order) Kramer, Lamari and Navarro. From the standpoint of campaign funding, each candidate falls into very different categories.

KRAMER: Kramer has raised very little from contributors. Counting from before the 2008 special election, the BOE shows him receiving a total of $5,440.00 in the form of 27 contributions, however we will only consider contributions commensurate with the 2009 special election. For the 2009 special election, that figure is $2,875.00 from 15 contributors. Kramer loaned himself $9,000 ($1K in 12/08 and $8K in 2/09). So how has Kramer spent $50,118.54 in his campaign thus far? I must admit, I’ve been researching campaign contributions and expenditures for seven years and I don’t get it. According to the State Board of Elections, Kramer has a current outstanding debt of exacting $180,450.00, most of it, appears to be moneys loaned to himself during the past three years. His debt or “Total Outstanding Obligations” increased from $130,450.00 in Kramer’s January 21, 2009 Annual Report to $180,450.00 in Kramer’s April 10, 2009 “Montgomery Special 2009 Pre-Primary 2 Report, a difference of exactly $50,000.00. HOWEVER, the BOE shows Kramer receiving only $8,000.00 in loans from himself during that same period. It’s difficult to know whether this is Kramer’s error, the BOE’s error or just plain pilot error on my part. In any case, I plan to have a long discussion with the BOE tomorrow. Back to the candidate: It’s well known that Ben Kramer hails from a family with strong ties to local politics as well as the development industry. A quick land records search shows that Kramer has interests in significant commercial landholdings near and along the ICC. So, is the money that Mr. Kramer has loaned himself “development related?” I believe it is. This puts Kramer’s development related take at 97%. Further, I’m not saying that this will happen, but it always remains possible that Kramer could accept tens of thousands in development related contributions after the April 10th filing. Those contributions would not be in public view until after the primary. Or he could simply wait until after the general election and report receiving development related contributions in the post general election report. Whatever the case, before the primary, Kramer needs to publicly avow that he will not repay any of his personal loans with yet-unseen developer contributions. Further, before the primary, Mr. Kramer must publicly state that, if elected, he will recuse himself on votes in all matters relating to his landholdings or the landholdings of his family, which fall inside Montgomery County. I end this section with a question; Why would someone spend $50,000 of their own money (and probably much more by the time Kramer files his post general election report) to win a seat that pays $94,040.00 a year? I guess it’s nice to be rich.

LAMARI: As of the April 10th filing, Lamari’s campaign has been funded by 43 contributions totaling $4,432.00. Most contributions are in small dollar amounts and are generally from individuals. Lamari has received $100 (2%) in development related contributions. Lamari has also loaned himself $10,000. Like any candidate loaning themselves money, Mr. Lamari should state publicly that he will not use developer contributions to repay campaign loans.

NAVARRO: In the 2009 special election, Navarro’s campaign has received $16,000.00 in the form of 42 contributions. However, Navarro has NOT filed her April 10th Campaign Finance Report as of midnight April 15th and is now four days late in filing. As confirmed at 3:00 PM 4/16/09 by the State Board of Elections, Navarro’s campaign committee has accrued $80.00 of fines thus far. Hopefully, Ms. Navarro will file the overdue report in time for Tuesday’s Primary. But, wait… we are fortunate in that this is Navarro’s second run for this seat in as many years. We have a full accounting of Navarro’s 2008 campaign financials and they do tell an interesting story. In the 2008 special election Navarro took $111,761.00 in the form of 185 contributions. Of that, $75,000.00 (67%) came from development related sources… that’s 2 out of every 3rd dollar. This level of development related campaign funding is very similar to what we saw with “End Gridlock” candidates in the 2002 county election. Of the $75,000.00 in development related contributions received, $31,950.00 (42.6%) came from just 7 development interests. Of that, $12,000.00 came from one developer, IDI. The $75K in development contributions is further compounded by Navarro’s apparent “sandbagging” of most of these funds. $63,750.00 (85%) was recorded after the 2008 Pre-primary Report filing, making the receipt of those developer dollars invisible to primary voters. From Navarro’s first 2009 filing (second late filing not available, yet), it’s hard to say whether she will repeat her 2008 sandbagging scheme. Perhaps she could make a public statement that she will limit her development related contributions in future filings.

As a postscript, it needs to be mentioned that Mr. Ficker is a realtor and thereby qualifies as a development related interest. However, the BOE shows no money received into the “Homeowners for Robin Ficker Committee,” in the form of loans or contributions. Also, Rob Goldman is a partner of the Bethesda-based law firm, Finkelstein & Horvitz, P.C., which, amongst other disciplines, practices real estate law, thus qualifying Goldman as a development related interest. However, the BOE shows no contributions or loans received by Goldman’s campaign committee.


So what does all this mean? Is it significant that a candidate takes more than half of their contributions from the development industry? Does it matter that a candidate is part of the development industry? Do developers get a good return on their investment? Will developer-candidates represent you, a citizen of District 4 or development interests? Do developer funded candidates do the developers’ bidding?

Based on NeighborsPAC analysis of developer funded campaigns in the 2002 election and subsequent county councilmember voting records, it certainly appeared that developer funded elected officials marched to the developers’ drumbeat. Will this happen in District 4? That’s for you to decide. ■

☼ As part of full disclosure, it needs to be mentioned that Neighbors for a Better Montgomery, of which I was the executive director, endorsed ten candidates in the 2006 county election (executive and nine council candidates). Those endorsements included: Valerie Ervin (current Montgomery County Councilmember and Nancy Navarro endorser), Cary Lamari (a District 4 candidate), Ike Leggett (current Montgomery County Executive and Ben Kramer endorser) and Duchy Trachtenberg (current Montgomery County Councilmember and Ben Kramer endorser).

* Last minute note: After reading the campaign finance analysis spread sheets, an informed individual stated that the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters PAC is not development related, but rather a union funded PAC, interested only in good working conditions and fair pay for their constituents. Even so, Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters’ constituents benefit from development in Montgomery County, which is why their $6,000.00 contribution was counted as development related. If this contribution were to be withheld from Navarro’s 2008 take, her developer total would have been $69,000.00 (62%).