The Wallets That Launch a Million Votes

March 20, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

There's a new trend afoot in Maryland: buying elections. Only millionaires, many times over, need apply.

Maryland has never had this kind of candidate, one who uses personal and family wealth to purchase political credibility. But it could happen this time, in two different races.

In the run for governor, two erstwhile Democratic contenders are thinking about multi-million-dollar campaigns that would be largely self-financed. There are two more such contenders in the Republican contest for U.S. Senate.

Both gubernatorial wannabes think they have the support of Governor Schaefer (so do some others). And both would enter the campaign with liabilities that money might not erase.

Stewart Bainum Jr. runs his family's $2-billion-a-year Manor Care nursing home and motel concern in Silver Spring. He once was a state delegate and senator from Montgomery County. He's been looking at a race for governor since last summer. He says polls show folks want a businessman in the governor's mansion who will apply private-sector practices to the government bureaucracy.

He will decide whether to make the race by the end of April, and figures to jump-start his campaign with a million or so. One report has him spending $2 million early on a TV blitz to make tTC Bainum a household name. His family, social and business connections could contribute the bulk of a $3 million kitty.

Meanwhile, Peter Angelos continues to get strong pressure to run for governor. He's a local hero for buying the Orioles (in a gutsy battle of the millionaires) and returning local ownership to the team. Now he's trying to bring back a National Football League team, too. If he does, he'll be the best-known and best-liked guy in town. Why not use that as a political springboard?

It would take a few million of Mr. Angelos' cash reserves to play catch-up. He would surely tap into union funds. Mr. Angelos and labor unions are very close. That's a plus in fund-raising and manpower but a definite negative when public perception focuses on Mr. Angelos' gung-ho unionism. He also can't claim to have run a giant corporation like Mr. Bainum. He's just another lawyer, albeit a successful sue-the-pants-off-asbestos-companies lawyer.

The public might hesitate to turn government over to either millionaire, given their inexperience in government management posts.

Mr. Bainum, for instance, says state government's personnel system is a mess. He's right, but try changing it. Mr. Schaefer has tried for years -- and been laughed out of the legislature. Businessmen might know all the answers, but that doesn't count for much in Annapolis where there are more entrenched roadblocks than you'd find en route to Sarajevo.

As for Mr. Angelos, just because he knows how to sue big businesses and ante up $170 million for the Orioles doesn't mean he can find the men's room in the State House. Nor is there any indication Mr. Angelos will have the time to devote to a political campaign this year.

Both men have conflicts of interest. Mr. Bainum cannot divorce himself from his family's considerable health-care investments in Maryland and the state's role in setting Medicaid payment rates and policing nursing homes. Federal health-care reforms could give the state a bigger role in these areas.

Mr. Angelos' baseball team is a tenant of the state. It is dependent on state decisions for all sorts of things, including expansion of the ballpark to enlarge revenues for the club and its owner. That's not the sort of arrangement you can place in a blind trust.

At this stage, Mr. Bainum and Mr. Angelos are just testing the waters. In the race for U.S. Senate, the two millionaires are announced candidates.

Bill Brock is a former U.S. Senator from Tennessee and a highly regarded former Republican Party chairman, U.S. trade representative and labor secretary. He's also heir to the Brock Candy fortune. And he probably will have to spend part of that wealth to make a name for himself against Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

Mr. Brock also finds himself in the curious (for Maryland) position of fending off a primary challenge from another millionaire, Ruthann Aron, who feels that holding a zoning-board position in Montgomery County is the perfect learning experience for the U.S. Senate. If Ms. Aron is to have any chance at all, she will have to underwrite her own campaign to a considerable extent. She's not even a blip on the radar screen of state voters.

Ms. Aron's biggest problem is that she has zero big-league experience. Mr. Brock's biggest headache is refuting the ''carpetbagger'' charge. Each candidate will have to overcome these handicaps through massive -- and expensive -- advertising campaigns in both the Washington and Baltimore markets.

Given the public's lukewarm response to the present gubernatorial candidates and opinion polls reflecting Senator Sarbanes' narrow base of support, all four millionaire newcomers have a chance of proving that from now on, money does talk in Maryland elections.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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