This year’s Mayor and Council election in Rockville is extraordinary not only because Election Day has turned into Election Month due to vote-by-mail, but also because so many new, unusual, and strange campaigning is happening. You’ve probably noticed a few of them but when you bring them all together, you realize this election is very different from its predecessors.
The number of candidates is the largest in recent memory and I’m not sure what’s prompting it. Running for office is grueling and costly. Maybe there’s a gut feeling that the city is being pulled in several directions and people are jumping in to influence the outcome or that there are two slates (which was common twenty years ago) plus the usual unaffiliated candidates.
We’re now at the time of the campaign when yard signs become a point of contention. During the day, fanatics will confront homeowners who have signs of their opponents or in the dead of night, steal signs and blame it on teenagers. This election is different because many homes have motion-activated security cameras, making it easier to catch misbehavior on video. Recently posted on Twinbrook Neighbors, a camera caught a person tucking candidate literature into the door who also seemed to go through the resident’s mailbox. And he wasn’t a teenager.
Richard Gottfried probably holds the record for the largest amount spent for the council seat at more than $50,000 in 2015, but is now at the opposite extreme by spending the least in this election. His latest campaign finance report has a balance of $0 and he is using signs recycled from the last election. Perhaps he’s pursuing a new campaign strategy, but when yard signs cost $2-5 each, I can easily understand the recycling. Nowadays, a decent campaign costs $7,500-$15,000 to design, print, and mail postcards to voters as well as pay for signs, literature, and a website. And most of it comes out of the candidate’s own pocket, not from some Super PAC.
The election has resulted in the usual handouts, postcards, and yard signs, but there is a heightened presence in the use of video in social media (particularly Facebook). The most unexpected is Rockville Forward’s production of the Ronnie Rockville Show which features Bridget Newton’s one-on-one interview with a cartoon bear. Maybe it’s cute, but why a bear? Why a cartoon? Why Ronnie? Are you taking elected office seriously?
For the last several years, the loss of the Gazette left many voters unaware of what’s happening in City Hall unless they watched hours of meetings online. The candidates are providing plenty of literature, but obviously, it’s biased and often exaggerated (who’s going to check the facts?). Online sources such as Bethesda Magazine, Seventh State, and Rockville Nights provide occasional glimpses, but a new website “The Rockville Verity” has popped up exclusively focused on Rockville government. They’re keeping themselves anonymous because “the truth can be harsh and retaliation and retribution is real.” Oh boy, isn’t that the truth.
Finally, one of the biggest changes for this election is the number of endorsements coming from both inside and outside Rockville by individuals and organizations that were never involved previously. Team Rockville has garnered endorsements from Greater Greater Washington, Action Committee for Transit, and the Coalition of Asian Pacific American Democrats. While Rockville Forward has not been endorsed as a group, incumbent Beryl Feinberg has received endorsements from a wide variety of elected officials, including Maryland State Senator Jeff Waldstreicher of Silver Spring, County Councilmember Sidney Katz of Gaithersburg, and former County Executive Ike Leggett of Burtonsville.
In the midst all of these endorsements are a few puzzling ones. Casa in Action, which advocates for immigrant rights and housing affordability, supports Monique Ashton because of her service as the Richard Montgomery Cluster Coordinator but that was only for two years, and I’m not sure how well she can sympathize with people with low incomes when she lives in a million-dollar mansion in the West End. A much better candidate is Cynthia Cotte Griffiths, who has held many more years of service on school boards and committees, including as president of the RMHS PTSA, as well working for Montgomery Housing Partnership and as the executive director of DC-MD Justice For Our Neighbors, which provides free, professional legal services to low-income immigrants. Seems that her actions align much better with the values of Casa in Action.
Even more strange is the endorsement of Brigitta Mullican by Richard Jurgena, former chairman of the Montgomery County Central Committee. It seems this endorsement has been shared with Republican voters, but not voters at large. If you’re active in local politics, there’s no secret that Mullican is active in the Republican party and has even been interviewed by conservative pundit Tucker Carlson, but why hasn’t she publicly embraced the endorsement of her political peers? Most likely because Rockville and Montgomery County are dominated by uninformed voters (who have a poor grasp of the candidates or issues) or Democrats (who vote the party line). Or it could be that the letter advocates a “bullet vote“—only voting for her—which is considered poor sportsmanship by some. But this is politics after all and it’s a bloody sport.