A shopper's guide to legislative seats

THE POLITICAL GAME

April 12, 1995|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

The cost of a seat in the Maryland General Assembly has skyrocketed.

The average price tag on a Senate seat is now approaching $100,000, and the going rate for the House of Delegates is nearly $45,000, a new study shows.

All that for a part-time job that doesn't quite pay $29,000 a year.

"There's a certain level that candidates have to raise to get in. And while you don't necessarily win with the most money, it's still a pretty good predictor of it," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, the watchdog lobby that undertook the study.

"The Mother's Milk of Maryland State Politics" is a revealing -- at times, stunning -- report on the amounts of money raised and spent by candidates who ran last year for state office.

Overall, candidates for the legislature's 188 seats spent a record $19.6 million -- 31 percent more than they spent for the 1990 election.

The study, which includes an accounting of the $3.4 million that political action committees poured into Maryland races, is based on the group's line-by-line review of thousands of pages of campaign contributions and expenditures.

As might be expected, the presiding officers of each chamber raised the most money.

Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. topped the list, raising more than $650,000 and spending nearly $400,000 of it while facing virtually nonexistent competition for re-election in Prince George's County.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. -- the Allegany County Democrat who was unopposed last year, but briefly entertained a run for governor -- beat the bushes for more than $380,000. He ended up spending more than $320,000 of that.

Like Mr. Miller, Mr. Taylor spread much of his money around as a goodwill gesture to other candidates. The two leaders were cementing their political bases around the state and inside their respective chambers.

Eight incumbent senators, including Mr. Miller, raised more than $200,000 each for their races, most of which were tough re-election fights and among the costliest.

"There is a tendency among incumbents to develop substantial war chests to intimidate challengers," Ms. Povich pointed out.

Despite that, three of the incumbents were defeated.

Democrat Michael J. Wagner lost in last year's most expensive Senate race to Republican C. Edward Middlebrooks in Anne Arundel County. Mr. Wagner spent more than $370,000, while Mr. Middlebrooks spent $57,000.

Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat, lost his seat to Jean W. Roesser despite spending almost $275,000. Ms. Roesser, a Republican former delegate, spent $126,000.

Nancy L. Murphy, a Baltimore County Democrat, spent nearly $235,000 to lose in a four-way primary race in a newly drawn district.

The second costliest Senate race involved two incumbent Baltimore County Democrats pitted against each other in the primary because of redistricting. Sen. Paula C. Hollinger spent nearly $247,000 to return to the Senate, while Janice Piccinini dropped $133,000 in her unsuccessful bid. Richard J. Manski, the Republican challenger, spent $22,000.

The other three senators who spent more than $200,000 to return to the legislature were Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell of Baltimore County, Sen. John A. Pica Jr. of Baltimore, and Sen. Larry Young, whose opponent in the primary spent just $592. All are Democrats.

On the House side, in addition to the speaker, only one incumbent delegate spent more than $200,000.

Baltimore's Howard P. Rawlings faced a bitter race against Robert L. Clay, who lost to Mr. Rawlings in the Democratic primary, then waged an unsuccessful write-in challenge in November.

Mr. Rawlings spent more than $234,000, while Mr. Clay spent $70,000 of the $135,000 in his campaign account.

Ms. Povich sees the escalating price of a legislative seat as part of a cycle -- one that is driven by the spiraling costs of candidates trying to outdo each other in getting out their messages.

"The costs continue to increase, which means a need to get large money," she said.

Ultimately, the trouble is not how much money, but where it comes from. "No one worries about the $25, $50 or even $100 contribution," she said. "But people question the motives behind a $4,000 contribution -- or a $6,000 contribution, in the case of PACs, which have a very vested interest in what the government does."

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