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Olszewski lays out public campaign finance plan

Olszewski Sarbanes Nov. 2021.JPG
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski is joined by County Council Chairman Julian Jones, Councilman David Marks and U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes at news conference on his public campaign finance plan. Credit: John Lee

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski proposed legislation Monday that would set up the county’s first public financing of candidates’ campaigns for county executive and the county council.

“For far too many people the cost of running for office has been far too high and it’s been a barrier much too large,” Olszewski said at a news conference in Towson.

Under Olszewski’s proposed legislation, the Fair Election Fund will be in place for the 2026 election year. It sets up a system of matching funds for candidates who qualify.

To qualify, a candidate must show they are viable by raising a minimum amount of cash. A candidate for county executive would have to raise $40,000 or more from at least 500 contributors. A county council candidate would have to raise $10,000 or more from at least 125 contributors.

Candidates who use the Fair Election Fund will be limited to accepting individual contributions of no more than $250. Only contributions from Baltimore County residents count toward the threshold they need to reach to qualify for matching funds.

Olszewski was joined at the news conference by other political leaders, including U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat, who represents Maryland’s third congressional district and is a sponsor of major voting rights legislation in the Congress.

“There’s a sense out there across the country, a kind of cynicism sometimes that when it comes to empowering campaigns, funding campaigns, the insiders kind of have the advantage that if you don’t have access to a lot of money or resources you really can’t be a viable candidate,” Sarbanes said. “You can push back against that.

“When you put these systems in place, not only does the broad public feel more respected, but you increase the diversity of the candidate pool,” Sarbanes added.

Councilman David Marks pointed out that fellow Republican Gov. Larry Hogan used state public matching funds the first time he ran for the office in 2014.

“Across the country, public financing gives smaller parties and underfunded candidates a better opportunity to get their message across,” Marks said.

Baltimore County voters in 2020 approved a charter amendment that allows for public campaign financing. When the council voted to approve putting the question on the ballot, two council members opposed it, including Democratic Councilman Julian Jones, who called it a “$4 million giveaway.”

Jones has since changed his mind on the matter. He attended Monday’s news conference and chaired the committee Olszewski created to study the issue and make recommendations.

“It will enable the citizens of Baltimore County to have more choices,” Jones said.

The racial makeup of the Baltimore County Council has been the subject for debate as the council attempts to redraw its district lines based on the 2020 U.S. Census. The NAACP, the ACLU and others want the council to create a second Black majority district. Baltimore County is about 30% Black. All of the council members except Jones are white.

Olszewski’s proposed legislation now goes to the county council for debate and a vote.

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