Claiming it aimed to weed out candidates willing to “pay to play,” Montgomery County’s largest employee union asked on its endorsement questionnaire if candidates would pay its political action committee to campaign on their behalf, if endorsed.
“That was to make a point,” said Gino Renne, president of United Food and Commercial Workers/Municipal and County Government Employees Organization Local 1994, MCGEO. “We wouldn’t have accepted any money. We were fishing to see what electeds or candidates would feel compelled to pay to play.”
Specifically, the question asked, “If endorsed by our Union, will you commit to writing a $4,000-$5,000 check to our PAC, like you would to MCEA, to assist our union’s campaign on your behalf?”
MCEA is the county teachers union, Montgomery County Education Association.
MCGEO’s request, Renne said, sought to highlight a teachers union practice of taking money from an endorsed candidate to fund union campaign efforts.
Montgomery County Education Association spokeswoman Barbara Hueter said the teachers union has, in the past, when a candidate requested it, taken money from candidates for the union’s campaign.
“We are not doing it this year,” she said. “We are doing different things this year.”
Montgomery County Councilman Marc B. Elrich said he understood money paid to MCEA under the arrangement went toward a mailer issued by the union. However, Elrich said he did not pay last year.
Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park — the only council incumbent to be endorsed by MCEGO — said it costs a candidate between $35,000 and $40,000 to produce and distribute their own countywide campaign mailer.
For Dick Jurgena, a Republican candidate for county council district 2, MCEGO’s question upset him enough that he did not submit the form for an endorsement.
“I looked at it more as extortion than I did as anything else,” he said. “I thought that I was pretty sure the union would not endorse me anyway, then when asking me for $4,000 to $5,000, it turned me off.”
Maryland law caps donations by individuals to a PAC at $4,000, leading Jurgena to think the question was more bait than substance. Candidate committee donations to a PAC are capped at $6,000.
State election law also prohibits quid pro quo endorsements, or endorsements in exchange for money, said Jared DeMarinis, director of the Candidacy and Campaign Finance Division of the State Board of Elections.
Hueter said MCEA never took money in exchange for an endorsement, nor was any money discussed prior to an endorsement.
Rather, the teachers union’s coordinated campaigns started after candidate recommendations were released, she said.
“We have always drawn a bright line between our recommendation process and the campaigning,” she said. “We take great pains to be fair and transparent in our process.”
Regardless, Renne called the practice into question, saying it undermined the entire point of a union endorsement: spending union money and putting union boots on the ground to campaign for a candidate.
“I’ve been involved in Maryland politics since 1978 and they [MCEA] are the only ones I’ve encountered who do this,” he said.
As for Renne’s claim that the endorsement question was meant to draw attention to the actions of MCEA, Jurgena could only laugh.
“OK. If you believe that, then I have a bridge to sell you,” Jurgena said.