Two-term County Council member Hans Riemer of Takoma Park, the only one of four at-large incumbents allowed to seek re-election in the wake of the 2016 referendum imposing term limits, Tuesday finished first in a primary that attracted a record 33 candidates.
The other three at-large nominations went to the three men who were widely seen as the favorites in the closing weeks of the primary—former Obama administration Will Jawando of Silver Spring, former journalist/long-time Silver Spring civic activist Evan Glass, and county Department of Recreation director Gabe Albornoz.
Notwithstanding the MeToo movement of the past year that helped bring a dozen women into the at-large contest, the female contenders fell short—with Gaithersburg/Germantown Chamber of Commerce CEO Marilyn Balcombe coming the closest, running in fifth place behind Albornoz.
With more than 98 percent of the vote reporting, Riemer had just over 49,700, for 12.2 percent of the total vote cast in the race. Jawando was next with more than 39,900 votes for 9.8 percent; followed by Glass with nearly 32,400 votes, or 7.9 percent; and Albornoz, at just under 29,950 votes, or 7.3 percent.
Balcombe was more than 4,000 votes behind Albornoz, garnering 6.2 percent of the total vote. Making a strong appeal to the county’s business community, she was the only one among the five top finishers who opted to raise money entirely from private sources; the four winners also tapped into the county’s new public funding system.
Behind Balcombe were Progressive Maryland staff member Brandy Brooks of Wheaton and Northwood High School teacher Chris Wilhelm of Chevy Chase, who campaigned together as an informal team. With the backing of several unions and the D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, they appealed to the hard-left wing of the Democratic electorate—with each finishing with 5.9 percent, for nearly 23,900 votes apiece.
Riemer, Albornoz, Glass and Jawando will face Republican opposition in the November general election, but are overwhelming favorites to serve on the County Council that will take office in December. Glass will become the council’s first openly gay member, while Jawando becomes only the second African-American to be elected countywide: The only other one is retiring County Executive Ike Leggett, who served four terms on the council before his three terms as executive.
Albornoz, whose parents emigrated from South America, is expected to join District 4 council member Nancy Navarro, who was renominated Tuesday and has no opponent in November. That will give the nine-person council two Hispanic-American members in a county where nearly 20 percent of the population is of Hispanic origin.
Barring a surprise in November, Navarro, of Silver Spring, will be the only woman on the new council, with the departure of council member Nancy Floreen of Garrett Park—one of the three at-large incumbents forced out by term limits. The other two, council members Marc Elrich and George Leventhal, both of Takoma Park, sought the Democratic nomination for county executive Tuesday.
In a contest that was so crowded with contenders that it was hard for candidates to gain name recognition, Riemer, Glass and Jawando appeared to benefit from having previously run for office: Riemer had two previous successful countywide contests for County Council under his belt, while Glass ran a competitive race for the District 5 council seat in 2014, and Jawando had mounted unsuccessful bids for state delegate in 2014 and Congress in 2016. Albornoz enjoyed a wide network of supporters after more than a decade as recreation director along with two years as chair of the county Democratic Party.
Albornoz received the endorsement of his long-time boss, Leggett, who also backed Riemer and Jawando. It was among several key endorsements received by the winning at-large candidates: Riemer and Jawando had the backing of the county’s influential teachers’ union, the Montgomery County Education Association. Along with Glass, they also won the endorsement of another organization with significant clout in local Democratic politics, the Sierra Club. In addition, Riemer, Glass and Albornoz—along with Balcombe—were endorsed by The Washington Post editorial page.
The unprecedented number of contestants in the primary for council at-large was largely precipitated by a couple of political factors: the frustrated reaction in an overwhelmingly Democratic county in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump, and the 2016 term limits vote that opened up three of the council’s four at-large seats.
But a financial factor—the county’s new law providing public subsidies to candidates for county executive and County Council—unquestionably came into play.
In the case of at-large council candidates, it enabled those who raised at least $20,000 in private donations from county resident in increments of $150 or less to qualify for public financing. It allowed candidates who raised enough in such small donations to receive up to $250,000 in public funding—a prospect that enticed 23 of the 33 at-large candidates to seek to tap into the system.
But, by the deadline in mid-May, only a dozen of those contenders had successfully qualified for public funds—with the rest either simply failing to raise enough in private contributions, or running afoul of regulations that disqualified contenders who had not corrected errors in their initial applications within a 10-day period.
By Primary Day, two candidates— Glass and Jawando—had maxed out at the $250,000 limit, while Riemer was not far from reaching the maximum.
Riemer, Glass, and Jawando, along with the other nine who qualified, formed the core of those considered the frontrunners for the four nominations, along with a couple of other candidates—including Balcombe—who had succeeded in raising a significant amount of campaign funds privately.
That political reality underscored the difficulty of breaking through in the cluttered field without money, major organizational endorsements—or both.
The logistics of trying to jam 33 people onto a stage at once was a disincentive to holding candidate forums at which the candidates could seek to differentiate themselves and their views from their rivals.
In one of the few instances in which the at-large candidates had an opportunity to appear together before an audience—before the Leisure World Democratic Club on successive Thursdays in March—they were broken into two groups of 14 each, with the remaining candidates opting not to appear at either session. Those who did appear were limited to one-minute answers in an event that sometimes seemed to be the political equivalent of speed dating; by the end, they were grasping for verbal gimmicks aimed at keeping members of the audience from forgetting their names.
“It’s enough of a challenge for candidates to even get someone to remember their names, much less what they actually stand for,” mused former at-large council member Steve Silverman—elected twice running in a primary field of eight candidates, one-quarter the size of this year’s.
Those with ample campaign funds had the advantage of being able to underwrite a series of glossy mail pieces in an effort to reach voters. But the sheer volume of these, combined with the blizzard of mail on behalf of candidates for other offices, had overwhelmed many voters, causing them to toss the fliers aside into a dedicated box or basket—if not directly into the recycling bin.
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