New Campaign Finance Rules Change the Game in Maryland

September 11, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

This year's race for governor shows why the political big boys delayed public campaign financing for 20 years -- and why the reformers were so eager to test it.

Three of the seven major Democratic and Republican candidates are taking the public money, agreeing to a spending limit and working to build a broader base of financial support, all required by law. Each of the three has added quality to the debate and energy to the campaign.

One of them might actually win.

Even before taking full advantage of the additional $100,000 in public money, Delegate Ellen R. Sauerbrey was doubling her standing in the polls over the summer even as her front-running rival, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, slipped. A substantial gap may still separate the two, but Mrs. Sauerbrey has only just begun to use her money.

"Without the public money we couldn't do it," she says.

If Mrs. Sauerbrey should win this primary, another $997,800 in public funds will slide almost instantly into her campaign accounts. Since she would be barred from spending more than that, all her time could be devoted to the campaign and its issues.

Were she to upset Mrs. Bentley, the public money would have worked a major change in the political landscape. Change has already occurred: Mrs. Bentley must now spend precious resources, all of them privately raised, to survive.

But even if no publicly-assisted candidate wins, the idea of public financing looks like a winner to its proponents. Much of what the reformers had in mind is happening as they hoped it would.

Passed as a political reform in the wake of the Watergate scandal -- in which the special interests were steering huge amounts of money toward their candidates -- public financing in Maryland is a one-time experiment. But even in its limited form it was delayed election after election by incumbent Democrats who thought it would help their opponents.

"The evidence shows it works. The money has helped candidates with some support get more visibility. It's helped to level the playing field,' says Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause in Maryland.

No fan of tax-supported campaign finance, Mrs. Sauerbrey somewhat sheepishly concedes her debt to it. She agreed to take the money, she says, because in Maryland's system the money was volunteered as an add-on by taxpayers.

The House minority leader has been running a textbook primary campaign, appealing passionately to her party's faithful core of tax-hating, government-bashing conservatives. Her message has produced a treasury of more than $700,000, including the public money.

Similarly, one of the two Democratic candidates who has taken the money, State Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski of Baltimore, has given his party's leader-in-the-polls real fits.

"I think we said some things they didn't like," Mr. Miedusiewski understates. The public money allowed him what he called the venue -- radio and television advertisements that permitted him to criticize Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening for over-promising to the big contributing special interests.

Well-spoken and confident, Mr. Miedusiewki emerged from a luster-free legislative career to assert a package of ideas that had him running second in the polls to Mr. Glendening.

His presence mattered even more as the campaign evolved because he often seemed to be filling a vacuum, standing in as a more articulate and forceful opponent that was Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, whose campaign sputtered. Without Mr. Miedusiewski, Mr. Glendening had a freer ride.

If some worry that a candidate such as Mr. Miedusiewski could rise so quickly without a record of experience, ideas or ambition, Ms. Povich says the amount of money is not enough to buy a campaign.

Mrs. Sauerbrey, Senator Miedusiewski and Senator Mary Boergers, a Montgomery County Democrat, are showing why public funding ventilates a process in which cash can slam the door on newcomers, she says.

The impact of wealth, usually referred to as special interest money, is diluted. If the playing field is not leveled by public money in Maryland, it is tilted in the right direction.

For every two dollars raised by a candidate in contributions of $250 or less, the state adds a dollar. Thus, a $250 contribution is worth at least $375 -- more when you consider that fund raising itself is very expensive.

Senator Boergers says she used that concept effectively as she raised more than $500,000.

When the public finance measure passed in 1974, Marylanders were at a low ebb of confidence in their officials. A former governor, Spiro T. Agnew, had been forced to resign in 1973 as vice president amid charges of kickbacks.

But the law was handled in a way that might well have increased cynicism instead. Legislators amended the bill so all 188 Assembly races were included. Delay would be necessary -- since everyone knew there wouldn't be enough money.

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