Big Boost for Sauerbrey

June 17, 1994

Come July 15, Ellen Sauerbrey will get a check from the state of Maryland that would make any "Wheel of Fortune" television contestant jealous. On that day, she will become the first candidate to qualify for matching money from a little-known public campaign-financing fund. The check could top $100,000.

More money will flow her way in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 13 primary election. She could wind up with $300,000 in public matching funds, and if she wins the Republican contest for governor, the Baltimore County delegate is eligible for an immediate $1 million payment. Now that's truly hitting it big on the Wheel of Fortune.

Mrs. Sauerbrey's decision to accept matching public money (she must agree to limit her total spending to roughly $1 million) gives her a much-needed boost. She is assured of having enough cash to mount an effective media campaign that concentrates heavily on radio ads.

By contrast, Mrs. Sauerbrey's opponents haven't made much headway. Rep. Helen Bentley is tied up in congressional work and has avoided the issues forums. Her fund-raising efforts are behind projections. Still, she has the best name recognition and a track record. The third Republican in the race, William Shepard, continues to make a dogged effort, though his funds are too modest to qualify for public matching money.

This is the first time public financing has been used in a political campaign in Maryland. The law was passed in 1974 in the post-Watergate reform frenzy, but legislators and incumbent governors never liked the idea. For instance, four years ago, Gov. William Donald Schaefer squelched efforts to permit the money to be used because he didn't want the cash to flow to his opponent.

The money comes from voluntary checkoffs of taxpayers on their income tax return. It was a flop from the beginning. Fewer and fewer people have contributed. But interest has accumulated over the years, and the fund now stands at $2.8 million. After this year, though, the law -- and Maryland's brief experiment with public financing of political campaigns -- expires.

For a candidate lacking deep-pocket connections, public money manna from heaven. Mrs. Sauerbrey can spend more time seeking out Republican voters and less time begging supporters to write her four-figure checks. The move is also cost-efficient: she avoids spending money on fund-raising. Thus, the $300,000 she could gain in public funds is actually the equivalent of $400,000 raised the old-fashioned way.

Marylanders aren't used to a hotly contested GOP primary for governor. There hasn't been one in 20 years. The injection of public funds could make the election closer than many had expected.

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