Dirty money? Baltimore County: Councilmen did right in refusing donations, but larger issues raised.

December 07, 1996

THE RECENT DECISION by Baltimore County councilmen not to seek campaign contributions until comprehensive rezoning was completed reflects an admirable desire to avoid any hint of political impropriety.

No law prohibits council members from accepting money from developers and others with an interest in rezoning, but they realized that people's faith in the process -- and in them -- could suffer if they did that.

They showed sensitivity to growing unease about the role of money in politics. They wanted to be able to say, incontrovertibly, that no one bought their vote on these sensitive, financially loaded land-use issues.

While giving them credit, however, we should consider what is reasonable to expect of politicians regarding campaign finances. is ridiculously idealistic to think money can be taken out of the process. Mr. Smith cannot go to Washington or even City Hall without printing bumper stickers, buying newspaper ads and a little time on radio and television and traveling across the district -- all necessary to make a candidate's name and positions known.

The public finds the donor-funded system of meeting such expenses increasingly distasteful, even when politicians operate legally within it. Contributions from certain groups, such as developers, are viewed cynically whether or not a candidate's record shows that he or she is a tool of the donors. If the electorate has become convinced that the exchange of money between donor and candidate corrupts, the only solution is a move toward publicly financed campaigns.

Otherwise, citizens must accept that candidates have a legal right to raise money, and that anyone has the right to participate in the process by contributing. Candidates should be expected to adhere to legal limits and disclosure rules and expect an examination of their records for suspicious patterns of undue favoritism. Voters can withdraw support from candidates who accept money from those whose causes and views differ from their own.

Reform is needed to give the system more public credibility. Yet we must recognize the reality that such reforms cannot include a ban on candidates accepting campaign contributions from anyone in the business or civic community whose paths they have crossed, or may cross. Candidates cannot be divorced from the world they seek to govern.

Pub Date: 12/07/96

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