Truth in giving Political fund-raising: Another war chest runneth over, but at cost of more cynicism?

October 15, 1997

BY RAISING money at a record rate before next year's election, Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary is doing what comes naturally to incumbents facing re-election: Accumulate as much cash as possible to deter potential challengers.

His $370,000 to date is on pace to top the $475,577 raised by Robert R. Neall in 1990 -- and all this without a declared opponent.

As the county's top elected official, Mr. Gary is in the position to tap many pools of money to fill a campaign war chest.

The most obvious targets are companies and people who do business with the county.

These include engineers, architects, contractors, bond lawyers and consultants, among others. Companies whose projects must pass muster in the government approval process -- primarily real estate developers and landowners -- are another source of contributors.

Under current law, this is legal. But there's an unseemly aspect, nevertheless.

To those who make these big contributions -- and to those who don't -- it appears the government is up for sale.

Certainly the congressional hearings on the Democratic National Committee's fund-raising preceding the last presidential election do nothing to allay such impressions.

What happens on the local level is not much different, except in the aggregate collected.

Politicians at every level of government are not so interested in asking for contributions from the average voter, who tends to give small amounts and to expect little in return.

Today's politicians prefer to mine the fat cats, who almost always give big and expect something back.

It may be access to the executive's office, expedited treatment before a regulatory board or a pipeline to legal work.

Given the current state of campaign financing, the best policy is full and quick public disclosure of contributions.

Consider it ''truth in giving.'' With computers and the Internet, contributions can be posted almost as soon as they are given.

This kind of system would at least help the public understand the real dynamics shaping county policy decisions.

If a representative is soliciting particular groups, the public has a right to know that -- not after the election, but shortly after the money is received. As long as big money fuels campaigns, full disclosure of contributions is in the public's best interest.

Pub Date: 10/15/97

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