A historic election is shaping up in Montgomery County.
The field vying for the four at-large seats on the County Council swelled to 38 candidates by the close of the state’s filing deadline Tuesday night.
Democratic voters in the county will face the challenge of trying to select four candidates from the 33 Democrats who have filed to run in the June 26 primary. There are also four Republicans and one Green Party member in the field.
Former council member Mike Knapp, who represented District 2 from 2004 to 2010, said he’s never seen anything like the number of candidates pursuing the at-large seats.
“Usually, you might get 10 or 12 candidates, but even that’s pushing the outer edges,” Knapp said Tuesday. “The exciting thing is that it shows a lot of pent-up demand and especially if you look at the breadth and diversity of those people running, it’s really cool.”
Twenty-five men and 13 women have filed to run. Twenty-four of the candidates opted to use the county’s new public campaign financing system that limits candidates to accepting individual contributions of $150 or less. Donations from county residents are then multiplied with matching county funds.
Takoma Park City Council member Jarrett Smith (left) and political consultant Graciela Rivera-Oven are among the candidates who have filed in the past week to run for County Council at-large seats. Photos provided by Montgomery College
In the past week, four new Democrats entered the race—Rockville attorney Tom Falcinelli, school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse, Germantown consultant Graciela Rivera-Oven and Takoma Park City Council member Jarrett Smith. Falcinelli, Smith and Rivera-Oven plan to use traditional campaign financing that enables candidates to accept contributions up to $6,000 from individuals. Ortman-Fouse plans to use the public campaign financing system.
All four have political experience. Falcinelli previously ran for Montgomery County sheriff in 2010. Ortman-Fouse is finishing up her first term as an at-large Board of Education member. Rivera-Oven was David Trone’s political director for his District 6 congressional campaign before stepping down to pursue an at-large seat. And Smith has served on the Takoma Park City Council since 2012.
Rivera-Oven said in an interview Tuesday she has advocated in the county for increased funding for Latino, Asian and African-American health initiatives as well as reforming the juvenile justice system.
“I heard the call like so many other women around the country to step up to the plate and get involved,” Rivera-Oven said. “This is my way of stepping up to the plate and listening to the call.”
She said she was “happy” working on initiatives on Trone’s campaign, such as his plan to combat the opioid epidemic, but ultimately decided she wanted to focus on her own campaign.
Smith, a commercial real estate broker, said Tuesday he hopes to bring initiatives he helped pass as a member of the Takoma Park City Council to the county such as allowing 16-year-olds to vote, restoring felons’ right to vote and banning plastic bags.
He believes his experience on the city council gives him an advantage over the candidates in the race running for elected office for the first time.
“I’m not trying to toot my horn or anything like that—everyone has ideas, but I’ve done it,” Smith said.
Smith, Ortman-Fouse, District 39 Del. Charlie Barkley (D-Germantown) and at-large incumbent Hans Riemer are the only other candidates that currently hold elected office in the field.
Three current Montgomery County government employees are also hoping to win one of the four seats—Gabriel Albornoz, the county’s recreation director; Cherri Branson, the director of procurement; and Neil Greenberger, a county spokesman. All are Democrats.
Branson previously served on the council representing District 5 from January to December 2014 after being appointed to the post by the council when Valerie Ervin stepped down. Greenberger has worked to separate himself from the large Democratic field by guaranteeing he will not raise property taxes if elected.
Branson and another Democratic candidate, Takoma Park activist Seth Grimes, who served on the Takoma Park City Council, are candidates who have held public office previously.
Several candidates have run for office in the past, including Democrat Evan Glass, the executive director of the youth media organization Gandhi Brigade, who lost the County Council District 5 primary to Tom Hucker by about 200 votes in 2014; and former Obama White House aide Will Jawando, who ran unsuccessfully in Democratic primary races for Congress in 2016 and state delegate in 2014. Democrat Hoan Dang, a Wheaton community organizer, ran unsuccessfully for District 19 delegate in 2010 and Richard Gottfried, a Rockville small-business owner, ran unsuccessfully for Rockville City Council in 2015.
Other candidates running in the at-large race include (from left to right) Mohammad Siddique, Hoan Dang, Chris Wilhelm, Brandy Brooks and Ashwani Jain
Democratic candidates in the field pursuing elected office for the first time include (pf = public financing):
- Rosemary Arkoian, a National Security Agency research analyst from Gaithersburg (pf);
- Marilyn Balcombe, the president of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce;
- Shruti Bhatnagar, a community advocate from Silver Spring (pf);
- Brandy Brooks, a community activist from Wheaton (pf);
- Craig Carozza-Caviness, a Montgomery Village real estate agent (pf);
- Ron Colbert, a federal contractor and basketball coach from Damascus;
- Bill Conway, a Potomac attorney (pf);
- Lorna Phillips Forde, a Germantown small business owner (pf);
- Loretta Jean Garcia, a Bethesda attorney (pf);
- Paul Geller, a stay-at-home parent and former president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs (pf);
- Ashwani Jain, a former Obama administration official from Potomac;
- David Lipscomb, a Gaithersburg data manager;
- Melissa McKenna, the former vice president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs and a Gaithersburg stay-at-home parent (pf);
- Danielle Meitiv, a Silver Spring science consultant who made headlines advocating for free-range parenting (pf);
- Michele Riley, a certified public accountant from Silver Spring (pf);
- Darwin Romero, a construction manager from Silver Spring
- Mohammad Siddique, a Montgomery Village management consultant (pf);
- Steve Solomon, a sports talk radio host and producer from Rockville; and
- Chris Wilhelm, a Montgomery County Public Schools teacher from Chevy Chase (pf).
Albornoz, Greenberger and Rivera-Oven are also running for elected office for the first time. Kensington resident Tim Willard is running as a member of the Green Party.
Republicans running for the seat include local blogger Robert Dyer of Bethesda; Chris Fiotes, a commercial real estate broker from Gaithersburg; Penny Musser, a Boyds insurance agent; and Shelly Skolnick, an attorney from Silver Spring.
Dyer, Fiotes and Skolnick ran unsuccessfully for at-large council seats in the 2014 general election. Skolnick racked up the most votes out of those three Republican candidates that year, with 81,698—a number that put him about 61,000 votes behind Hans Riemer, the fourth-place finisher.
The last time a Republican was elected to the council was in 2002, when Howard Denis beat Democratic opponent Duchy Trachtenberg in District 1. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 377,000 to 115,000 in the county, making the Democratic primary a likely foreshadowing of the general election results.
Knapp, the former council member, estimated the at-large race alone may make up about five pages of the Democratic primary ballot.
“It’s an interesting question—will voters get voter fatigue in the ballot booth?” Knapp said. “To have to think about 34 people is both very exciting and very disconcerting.”
He said it will be difficult for voters to find out detailed information about each of the candidates given the number running. He noted if a local group were to try to hold a forum with all the candidates, just allowing them to give a one-minute intro about themselves would likely run 45 minutes or more. Responses to specific questions could take up to an hour per question, Knapp said.
Some forums for at-large candidates have already taken place. For example, The Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors hosted five forums, with each one featuring five at-large candidates over three days in late January and February.
Knapp said he believes newly installed term limits forcing three at-large incumbents to step down—George Leventhal, Nancy Floreen and Marc Elrich—have spurred candidates to run for the open seats. But he also said the county’s new public financing system and Democrats’ general frustration with Republican control of the federal government have prompted more candidates to run in local elections.
“All of these pieces are coming together,” Knapp said. “It’s really exciting to see the diversity of the candidate pool in terms of ethnic, racial, age, all of those factors. You really have a fascinating array of great candidates.”
Of the 21 candidates who opted to use public financing, only Riemer, Wilhelm, Conway, Dang, Glass, Grimes, Jawando, Siddique and Albornoz had qualified to receive matching funds from the county as of Jan. 31, according to the most recent state records. Candidates must raise at least $20,000 in contributions of $150 or less. Candidates have until 45 days before the June 26 primary to hit the qualifying threshold to receive public funds.
As of Jan. 31, Riemer had received the most in matching public funds—with $163,800 disbursed to him. Conway received $140,500; Glass, $116,100; Dang, $107,400; Wilhelm, 98,300; Jawando, $96,800; Albornoz, $88,900; Siddique, $73,400 and Grimes, $73,000.
Barkley, the state delegate from Germantown, reported the most money, with a total of $233,400, in his campaign war chest in the annual campaign financing reports filed by candidates in mid-January. Barkley, who has served in Annapolis for more than 20 years and is using traditional campaign financing, started 2017 with about $205,000 in the bank, which gave him an early financial edge over other candidates in the field.
Jain, the former Obama official, reported about $133,000 in his campaign account at the time, while Balcombe, the Gaithersburg chamber president, reported about $50,000 in campaign cash.
In cash on hand, Riemer trailed Barkley with about $194,000 in his account; Conway was third with $154,500; Glass had $143,500 and Wilhelm rounded out the top five with $123,300 cash on hand at the time of the mid-January filing deadline.
Note: The following informal poll is not scientific.The poll is now closed. The following are the results:
Correction: This article was updated to indicate Hoan Dang ran for delegate previously in 2010 and the County Council appointed Branson to the council in 2014, not County Executive Ike Leggett.