Price of getting elected just keeps going up

Comment

July 14, 1996|By Brian Sullam

ANNAPOLIS IS suffering from electoral inflation.

The price to become the mayor of Maryland's state capital city has gone up $1.50 a voter since the last election, or a whopping 43 percent.

Fifth District Alderman Carl O. Snowden calculates he has to spend about $5 per voter on his yet-to-be-declared race for mayor. Incumbent mayor Alfred Hopkins spent about $3.50 when he last ran in 1993.

These ever-escalating costs are at the heart of what ails our political system.

President Clinton, who has no competition for the Democratic nomination, is on the way toward raising more than $100 million before his party's national convention. GOP candidate Robert Dole is doing his best to keep up.

Even state races require enormous sums. Gov. Parris N. Glendening spent $5 million to win office in 1994. The governor seems to be intent on raising more than double that -- $11 million -- for his re-election bid two years from now.

As for Annapolis, Mr. Snowden believes he needs about $65,000 in cash before embarking on his quest for his city's top office. He needs to be able to buy newspaper, television and radio ads; mail brochures; engage a pollster, and hire a handful of paid campaign workers, he explains.

It seems that politicians at every level suffer from chronic anxiety that there is always someone lurking out there ready to outspend them.

Cold War of money

The psychological dynamic produces a situation similar to the former Cold War.

As soon as the Soviets developed a new missile, faster fighter or quieter sub, America was obliged to improve its weaponry. The Soviets would respond with a new version to offset any advantage we might have temporarily enjoyed. This escalation in armaments became quiet expensive. Luckily for us, the Soviets went broke first.

Politicians are behaving in a similar fashion but with an undesirable side effect: The quest for money takes precedence over the quest for votes.

Incumbents love to raise money so they can discourage others from challenging them. As a result, the first order of business after getting elected is to hold fund-raisers to retire the campaign debt or get a head start on the next election.

Mayors, county executives and governors -- public officials who control millions of dollars' worth of public contracts -- have no trouble raising money from businesses and people who depend upon public work.

It's no coincidence that homebuilders, developers, lawyers, architects, engineers, large construction companies, municipal securities underwriters and bankers are among the largest donors to campaigns.

The unfortunate result is a system where many elected officials find themselves more beholden to their donors than to the voters who put them into office.

Circumvented reforms

Despite two decades of campaign financing reform at virtually ,, every level of government, we have only been able to remove the most egregious abuses. It is if as though every reform designed to curb abuses gets circumvented.

A fat cat no longer can single-handedly finance a political campaign, but that same fat cat can approach dozens of his closest business colleagues and "bundle" small contributions into one big one. When this happens the candidate doesn't remember the individuals who wrote out the checks, but he remembers the person who collected them.

The same is true for eliminating corporate or limiting individual contributions. No matter how restrictive the laws, there are always people determined to get around them.

Just last week, racetrack magnate Joseph De Francis was alleged by the Maryland State Prosecutor of using out-of-state relatives as intermediaries in a scheme to contribute more than he was legally allowed during the 1994 governor's race.

Where does it end?

Will someone in the next decade spend $10 a voter to get elected mayor of Annapolis?

There are ways to improve this situation.

Fund-raising methods should be an issue in every campaign. Voters should know which candidates rely on big donors to whom they may be beholden after the election. Voters should also be aware of the candidate who fills his treasury with small sums.

Public disclosure has enabled voters -- if they are interested -- to to learn more about who is behind a candidate's campaign than ever before.

That's one of the reasons we know so much about Mr. Snowden's fund-raising efforts. We should be as knowledgeable about all the politicians running for office.

By keeping informed, voters can decide whether the donors will have a disproportionate say in government over themselves -- the very people whose ballots were allegedly the reason for raising all this loot in the first place.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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