Public's concerns about fund raising valid, senators told

March 07, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The perception -- and the reality -- driving Maryland's General Assembly toward tighter controls on lobbyists and campaign fund raising merged yesterday in appeals from the consummate insider and from a complete unknown.

"I think the whole fund-raising process is out of control," said Joanne Lawler of Northeast Baltimore, a worker in political campaigns -- and completely anonymous here until yesterday. "I think the amount of money is obscene."

Ms. Lawler said she was reluctant to make campaign contributions because she was uncomfortable about how the money would be spent -- and about whether the small sums she could afford gave her much voice in the game of big money politics.

"Why should I give $30 when you're getting $2,000 from a PAC?" she asked the committee members.

The young stranger's persistent assertions seemed to unsettle the Senate Committee on Economic and Environmental Matters.

The panel was hearing testimony on a package of reform bills that would restrict the role of lobbyists in fund raising; require accurate names for PACS, which often carry obscure labels; and require lobbyists to provide a careful accounting of what they spend on legislators.

The members seemed to have far less trouble with the comments of an Annapolis insider, lobbyist James J. Doyle Jr. -- though Mr. Doyle told them the same thing.

He offered this image of the "perception" issue:

You're an average guy making $25,000 a year. You read newspaper stories about lavish entertaining by lobbyists for legislators. You hear about a fortune raised for candidates in a single evening. You read about political action committees, often controlled by lobbyists, raising huge sums for the legislators they favor.

"The average guy thinks this is a world to which he doesn't belong

and will never belong," Mr. Doyle said.

The average guy is watching something that might be called "the heavyweight, special interest game," Mr. Doyle said. That -- game, he suggested, may be partly responsible for a "worrisome" and widening gulf between government and the governed.

He suggested that there was not much difference between the perception of money's role in politics and the reality. And he challenged the usual defense offered for making campaign contributions: that contributions must be rendered unto legislators to guarantee "access" -- a chance to make your case.

The role of money in the process, he said, has grown to an alarming proportion.

"Money has really taken on a role in this process that's well beyond the role money should play," he said.

He said he has had little, if any, difficulty obtaining access to Assembly members. But he has concluded from conversations with people outside the political process that too many believe the ability to entertain at a country club is the only way to be heard by a legislator.

"There's something wrong if the little guy thinks he can't get access unless he spends a lot of money," he said.

And then the "little guy" appeared -- in the form of Joanne Lawler.

"I was astounded when I got the Common Cause report (on each legislator's fund raising) in the mail and I saw the amounts of money we were talking about," she said. "There's a lot of astonishment out there."

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, suggested that it -- wasMs. Lawler's fault that politicians were dependent on big givers.

"When you turn your back, [candidates] turn to people you're concerned about," she said. Common Cause, the citizens lobby, should educate people to "cough up the $1 or $2 it costs to buy a bumper sticker," she said.

Several members of the committee attempted to assure Ms. Lawler that her money mattered as much as money from a corporate giver.

Sen. C. Bernard Fowler, D-Calvert, suggested that reports of spending are sometimes misinterpreted. For example, he said, much of the $66,728 he raised for last year's election went to a picnic honoring the provender of Southern Maryland -- "anything that swims, flies or lives in Southern Maryland." The food was consumed by supporterswho bought their own tickets.

He suggested that the event was hardly political, but Ms. Lawler saw it as "exactly that" -- and as "entertainment on an enormous scale."

"Sure," said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, weighing in on behalf of his colleague. "You want to win on an enormous scale."

"It's an avenue available only to incumbents," Ms. Lawler declared. The senators, almost in chorus, disagreed.

"Do you have any idea how expensive elections are?" Mr. Blount asked.

"The way to avoid the costs is with volunteers," the witness said.

What about the cost of printing, the senators demanded.

"Couldn't that be done under lower PAC limits?" she asked.

The senators just shook their heads, as if it were Ms. Lawler who didn't understand.

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