Follow the Money: Election Campaigns in Rockville

Rockville-Election-UpdateOctober 1 was the deadline for the first financial reports in this campaign season with the second one due October 26, just a few days before the November 3 election.  Financial reports are a result of unfair election tactics and political corruption, and indeed, while most voters feel that money has a bad influence on politics, fundraising is a crucial aspect of campaigning, even here in our hometown of Rockville.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the cost of a campaign is high, especially in mayoral races.

Rockville’s election code has a lengthy section on campaign financing that outlines the requirements for a treasurer and record-keeping; acceptable expenses, contributions, and loans; and restrictions on campaigning by people who are not candidates.  At times, these requirements and limitations seem onerous or archaic, such as prohibiting “payment for walk-around services.” Aren’t the days when thugs were paid to hustle people at the polls to gain a vote or to intimidate opponents long gone? Yet in 2003, the Maryland Court of Appeals reviewed a case that accused the Ehrlich/Steele gubernatorial campaign of hiring high school and college students along with 200 residents of a homeless shelter to “accost voters” outside the polls and urge a “voting preference.” The 2013 election campaign in Rockville involved several questionable tactics and since then the Board of Supervisors of Elections has clarified the Election Code to close some of these loop holes (e.g., no statements and materials may be distributed anonymously, even by individuals).

Campaign financial reports also reveal the name, address, and amount contributed to every candidate, which can suggest the shape and nature of a campaign (and the city).  For example, an analysis of the contributors listed in the reports for the 2013 Mayoral race showed that Mark Pierzchala received slightly more support in the Zip Codes on the south side of Rockville (20851, 20852, 20854) while Bridget Newton led in the north (20850) and received significantly more funds from outside of Rockville.  By arranging the contributors by the size of their donations, it’s clear that Pierzchala received more small contributions (aka a grassroots campaign) while Newton was supported primarily by large contributions (Pierzchala received 41 contributions under $50 compared to 33 for Newton; Pierzchala received one contribution over $500 compared to ten for Newton).

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Finally, by revealing each contributor, the campaign financial reports help follow the money by showing not only who is supporting a candidate but who may be trying to influence decisions in city hall.  In the current election, Richard Gottfried has built his campaign on the assertion that “fat cat developers” support some of his opponents, a claim that can be tested by reviewing the reports.  This was also a rumor swirling around in 2013, yet my review of every candidate’s financial reports never showed that any developers contributed even a dollar to a campaign nor has anyone ever been able to identify a real estate developer who made a contribution (of course, they could have passed their money through a surrogate, but no one has identified these charlatans nor asked for an audit of a financial report).  Gottfried’s allegation is serious and rings loudly in the minds of some voters, but if he’s wrong, it’s a big risk to him and his supporters (ironically, he lives in a house built by a developer and lives in one of Rockville’s largest developments).

In the next week, the Board of Supervisors of Elections will review the campaign financial reports to ensure they comply with the Election Code and the City Clerk will scan and post every report on the City’s web site.  I tip my hat to them for revising the forms and preparing clear instructions (incredibly, the forms for previous elections had calculation errors that drove treasurers crazy and the instructions were incomplete and confusing). And if you’re interested in what’s happening at the state level, check out the database at the National Institute on Money in State Politics at FollowTheMoney.org (they received a MacArthur Award in 2015!).

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