Four days before last fall's primary election, Del. James Campbell began getting calls from constituents concerned about his indifference to a planned march of Skinheads in Baltimore.
This came as a surprise to Campbell, D-City, who said he has worked hard to keep the hate group out of his neighborhood, Hampden. But about 5,000 voters in his district got the opposite impression from some colorful brochures mailed to them.
"Even through Campbell lives in Hampden, he's done nothing meaningful to keep violent racists and anti-Semites off the streets of Baltimore," said the brochure, which was illustrated with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
Testifying yesterday in support of a proposed reform of the state's campaign laws, Campbell said more stringent disclosure rules would help thwart the sort of smear campaign to which he says he was subjected.
"It deals with the lowest common denominator in politics," Campbell told the House Administrative Law Committee.
A bill he co-sponsored would require more timely disclosure of the organizers and funding of political groups, so that voters could consider the source of the information. The materials used against him were prepared by a California firm and paid for by a small group that included some people out of state.
Campbell's bill is among 29 proposed laws before the House of Delegates. Chief among them are three authored by House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore.
Mitchell, who resisted reform efforts in the past, said he had done so because he didn't believe such changes should be made in the middle of legislators' four-year terms.
Mitchell's bills would:
* Limit for the first time the amount of money political action committees -- or PACS -- may donate to candidates. The bill suggests a limit of $8,000 a candidate.
* Require lobbyists to disclose gifts and meals bought for state officials. Current laws require lobbyists to report the total amount they give, but not the recipient in most cases.
* Prevent lobbyists from serving on candidates' campaign committees or arranging for or making contributions to a campaign.
A similar package was introduced by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's. Miller's bills also would prohibit fund-raising during legislative sessions and would prohibit lobbyists from forming PACS.
"We'd all be better off if we were seeking money from our constituents, rather than leaving them with the perception that we get money from people that make a lot of money," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. in testifying for Mitchell's bills.
Curran deputies suggested clarification of certain elements of the bills to avoid constitutional challenges, but predicted the laws likely would survive a court challenge.
The high-powered backing of the two legislative leaders seems to give the initiatives a good chance of passage, though there is opposition.
"I resent the fact that flamboyant activities of certain lobbyists taint what I am trying to do," said Amy Blank, a lobbyist who has represented children and family advocacy groups, among others.
She said her effectiveness depends on her ability to "play the process from beginning to end," including supporting candidates sympathetic to her interests, educating lawmakers and raising money.
The best way to reform the system would be for candidates to receive public funding, she said.