Election financing gains fans

January 29, 1995|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,State Administrative Board of Election Laws ANNAPOLIS HEARINGS To receive, by fax, a copy of the Maryland General Assembly legislative hearing schedule for the week, dial 332-6123. Enter the information number 5959. To receive the schedule automatically each week, call the electronic news desk at 332-6893.Sun Staff Writer

Moved by the apparent success of Maryland's first experiment in publicly financed elections, Democratic and Republican lawmakers -- including the majority leaders of both houses -- say they want to reauthorize public financing for the next gubernatorial election in 1998.

Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat who has agreed to co-sponsor a public financing bill with Minority Leader John A. Cade, explained: "I don't like elections where the outcome depends on how much money you have, or where who has the most money wins."

Two months ago, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey was nearly elected governor in heavily Democratic Maryland, in part because she opted to use more than 1 million in taxpayers' dollars to finance her campaign.

Mrs. Sauerbrey says her decision to accept the public money gave her long-shot candidacy instant credibility in the Republican primary and made her competitive in the general election despite being heavily outspent by the eventual winner, Democrat Parris N. Glendening.

Like last year's program, the public financing bills to be introduced in both houses would be totally voluntary: Gubernatorial candidates would not have to participate and taxpayers would not have to donate unless they wanted to.

Governor Glendening, whose opponent in 1998 very well could tap into such a fund, said unless every candidate in the race could be required to participate -- something the Supreme Court has said would be unconstitutional -- then public financing will not end the problems caused by increasingly expensive political campaigns.

"I would not put myself in a situation of being in the public financing and have someone come in and be able to expend unlimited personal or collected funds," he said.

Despite that view, the governor said if the legislature and the public want public financing, he would not oppose it.

Whether Mrs. Sauerbrey would have done better if she had financed her campaign the traditional way -- by hitting up lobbyists, corporate bigwigs and anyone else willing to part with hefty contributions -- she says she will never know. She complained that by adhering to the overall spending limits imposed on those who received public funds, she was unable to quickly respond to attacks by Mr. Glendening because she had to save her resources for the last few days of the campaign.

But other observers of the electoral process call Maryland's first effort in publicly financed elections a resounding success.

They say it kept costs under control by imposing a lid on spending by the three candidates who participated; made it harder for special-interest groups to buy influence with big-buck contributions to the three; and provided all three with enough money to make their campaigns competitive.

"We never would have been so successful without public financing," said James Brochin, who managed the underdog campaign of American Joe Miedusiewski, an East Baltimore state senator who joined the gubernatorial race late but finished second -- albeit a distant second -- in the Democratic primary.

Mr. Miedusiewski, Mrs. Sauerbrey and former state Sen. Mary H. Boergers, a Democrat from Montgomery County and the third candidate to accept public funds, agreed the money made it possible for them to go on television long before they might have otherwise.

While each complained of problems in the way the program was administered, they seemed to agree that without that jump start, they might never have gotten their message out.

"When you're in a race like that, obviously you'd like to think you could go out and raise a million, or a million and a half, on your own. But those larger contributors all feel that they need to be with the perceived winner, or perceived front-runner," Mr. Miedusiewski said. "Public funding was like manna from heaven for us."

Maryland is only the latest of a dozen states to publicly finance its gubernatorial elections, but it took 20 years to do so.

The law setting up the program passed in 1974 and was originally to apply to the 1978 elections. Before it was enacted, it was amended to apply not only to the governor's race, but to all 188 Assembly races as well. With financing coming from voluntary add-on donations by taxpayers, there never was enough money to finance so many campaigns.

Implementation was postponed election after election, until 1994, when use of the money was scaled back to only the gubernatorial race and no incumbent was seeking re-election.

The effort to resurrect the program and make it permanent is being led by the self-styled citizens' lobbying organization, Common Cause/Maryland.

Deborah Povich, executive director, says it is essential the program be reinstated this year if it is to have enough time to raise the money needed to make the program meaningful in 1998.

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