Credit: Photo by via Glenstone.org

Potomac billionaire Mitchell Rales, whose $4 billion net worth has propelled him to number 133 on the Forbes 400 list, often has his eye on Europe and beyond. Rales and his wife, Emily, travel the globe looking for new artists whose work they can add to Glenstone, their private modern art museum on their property off Glen Road. The museum is open by appointment only to the public 24 hours per week. 

Since 2010, however, the Raleses have focused some of their attention on local politics and politicians. As they pondered the expansion of Glenstone, where a new addition is expected to open in 2016, the couple began courting local politicians, including making donations to their political campaigns.

An analysis by Eric Hensal of Takoma Park, a local political activist, consultant and former Takoma Park City Council candidate, shows that the couple and several friends and relatives, including some from out of state, have donated more than $100,000 to local politicians since 2011. And an analysis by Bethesda Beat shows that the Raleses became donors to state and local politicians even earlier, around the time they were preparing to ask the county to rethink the sewer rules that had left their property outside of the public water and sewer system.

Here is the list of contributions, from September 2011 to May 2014, according to Hensal:

Receiving Committee

 

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County Executive Ike Leggett

$68,000

Council member Roger Berliner

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$27,000

Council member Hans Riemer

$4,000

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Then-council member Phil Andrews

$4,000

Then-council member Valerie Ervin

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$2,000

Council member George Leventhal

$1,500

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Council member Nancy Floreen

$1,000

Council member Marc Elrich

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$500

Council member Craig Rice

$500

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Total

$108,500

 

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While Mitch’s brother Josh, a businessman and unsuccessful candidate for the U.S Senate in 2006, has been a political donor for some time, Mitchell and Emily Rales began making campaign contributions in Maryland starting in 2010, earlier than Hensal’s analysis shows, according to state records.

That year the couple donated $8,000 to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s reelection bid. Mitchell’s brother and business partner, Steve, gave O’Malley’s campaign $4,000. The trio also gave $12,000 to the campaign of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, O’Malley’s running mate.  

Later in 2010, Mitchell and Emily Rales gave Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s campaign a total of $4,000. 

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In 2012, as the Raleses moved forward with plans to build a second, massive modernist structure on their land—one  that would rival the East Wing of the National Gallery in size—they began courting local politicians more openly, holding a champagne reception at Glenstone to honor then-newcomer Joshua Starr, who had become the county’s school superintendent. Dozens of local politicians attended. Soon, Glenstone’s land use attorney, Barbara Sears of Bethesda’s Linowes and Blocher, went before the county’s Planning Board to ask for permission to run a sewer line on the property in a part of the county that is limited to well and septic only.

And Mitchell and Emily Rales mounted a campaign to try to win public support, emailing a long list of people who had been to receptions at Glenstone or whom they had otherwise come to know. The emails asked for help persuading the County Council that Glenstone deserved the special sewer permit. Dozens of people enlisted by the couple showed up at a County Council hearing in 2012 to press for the sewer permit.

Some neighbors opposed bringing in sewer lines, fearing they would lead to other development, but the County Council approved the exception.

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Last year Sears wrote a letter to the county asking for a reduction in Glenstone’s transportation impact tax burden, saying that Glenstone should be treated more like a “social service provider” instead of being designated in the more expensive “other, non-residential” category. Sears said the museum provides “significant educational and social service programs at no cost to county residents,” including Montgomery County public school students and teachers.”

Earlier this month, the foundation that operates Glenstone was granted a $372,993 tax refund, as part of a change unanimously approved by the County Council. The move reduced the tax on Glenstone from $445,419 to $72,426. The council approved the measure despite hesitation from council member Nancy Navarro and urging by the council attorney, Michael Faden, to hold a public hearing on the proposal to change the designation.

Council member Roger Berliner, one of the major recipients of the Raleses’ money, told Bethesda Beat that he thought the vote made sense even if it seemed as if Glenstone and its billionaire owners were receiving special treatment.

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“If Glenstone was generating traffic like a retail store, that would be different. Access is limited. Therefore traffic is limited. You should pay based on the traffic you generate,” Berliner said.

And Patrick Lacefield, Leggett’s spokesman, said that the couple’s donation amounted to a fraction of the $1 million or so that Leggett raised as he ran for his third term. “There was no quid pro quo,” Lacefield said.

Efforts to reach Mitch Rales through his local spokesman, Charles Maier, were unsuccessful.

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