BG&E lost a friend, but PAC gained it another

July 25, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Federal Election Commission Reports. BG&E PAC reports, and Florence Beck Kurdle, chairman of BG&E PAC. GR. PHOTO 1Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When Western Maryland Democrats unseated Rep. Beverly B. Byron last year, the seven-term incumbent wasn't the only one left in shock.

Her defeat also dealt a blow to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which lost a friend in Congress. Mrs. Byron, who sat on a committee that oversees a range of energy issues, including nuclear energy, was a pro-industry vote that BG&E and other electric power interests had come to rely on.

To make matters worse, from the utility's point of view, the man who upset Mrs. Byron in the March primary and the favorite to take her place, Del. Thomas Hattery, was regarded as an industry foe. His campaign manager was a lawyer on leave from the Maryland People's Counsel, an agency that often opposes rate increase requests by utilities and whose authority Mr. Hattery wanted to strengthen as a member of the state legislature.

But Mr. Hattery never made it to Congress, and the man who ultimately took Mrs. Byron's place -- 6th District Congressman Roscoe G.Bartlett -- appears to be every bit as good a friend to the power company as the woman he succeeded.

The story of how BG&E successfully scrambled, through its political arm, to make up for the unexpected loss of an ally on Capitol Hill is a case study in the ways that special interests work to perpetuate their influence in Washington and why critics complain that political action committees (PACs) have a disproportionate influence on government.

Winning friends in Washington is what PACs have been about since they were started 50 years ago, by organized labor, as a way for small donors to pool their campaign contributions and elect candidates who shared their concerns.

BG&E's PAC, financed by 650 to 800 employees through voluntary payroll deductions, ranks 470th in size among the 3,052 PACs that gave $179 million to candidates for federal office in the 1991-1992 election cycle.

In advance of last year's Democratic primary, BG&E's PAC gave Mrs. Byron the maximum amount allowed by federal law: $5,000 (had she won the primary, the PAC could have donated another $5,000, for the general election). But when she lost, the PAC got behind Mr. Bartlett, the Republican candidate.

Mr. Bartlett had been so lightly regarded that he did not get a cent from PACs until Mrs. Byron's loss opened up the seat. Even then, the PAC money was slow to come in.

Most of it arrived in the last three months of the campaign, only after Mr. Bartlett was able to establish himself as a credible candidate with a chance of winning, said Stephen S. Lakin, a public affairs consultant and political fund-raiser hired by the Bartlett campaign.

BG&E's PAC gave him $5,500 during the campaign (the $5,000 maximum for the general election and $500 for the primary period, which already had passed). Company lobbyists worked to round up financial support from other utility PACs as well.

In the end, electric and gas utilities turned out to be the biggest special interest contributor to the Bartlett campaign. Besides the money he got from the BG&E PAC, Mr. Bartlett got about $10,000, most delivered in the last six weeks of the campaign, from utility company PACs and three pro-business PACs to which BG&E's political action committee had made contributions.

Mr. Bartlett's election in November meant BG&E had a new friend in Congress, and, perhaps to cement that friendship, the PAC gave Mr. Bartlett another $4,500 in December, a month after he won the congressional seat, to help pay campaign debts. That brought its donations to him for the 1992 election to the maximum $10,000.

Paulette Pidcock, BG&E's chief lobbyist here, acknowledges that the firm solicited support for Mr. Bartlett from other utility PACS, a routine Washington practice. Asked whether BG&E's chief interest was in seeing Mr. Bartlett get elected or in keeping Mr. Hattery out of Congress, she answered, "Let's put it positively. We were very interested in seeing Mr. Bartlett win that particular seat."

Mr. Bartlett finished the year with $87,000 in PAC contributions -- more than 20 percent of that from utility interests. (Mr. Hattery got $277,000 from PACs, much of that from organized labor and most of it after his primary victory over Mrs. Byron.)

Mr. Bartlett, asked what the Baltimore utility expects for the $10,000 contribution from its PAC, responded: "They hope that I'm going to do what I said I was going to do -- vote for less taxes, less government and less regulation."

Asked what PAC contributions get for BG&E, Florence Beck Kurdle, chairman of the utility's PAC, responded, "Well, they don't get you votes. I think they're just one piece of building relationships."

Noting that campaigns are expensive, Ms. Kurdle said, "As long as that is the system, we participate in that system."

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