Schoenke donors get surprising returns Former gubernatorial candidate repays his campaign contributors

July 31, 1998|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Montgomery County businessman Raymond F. Schoenke Jr. spent more than $2 million of his own money to underwrite his aborted bid for governor. Now, he is reaching deeper into his pockets to return $250,000 in campaign contributions from supporters who backed his candidacy.

Schoenke, a former Washington Redskins offensive lineman and insurance brokerage owner, is sending back all the money contributed to his campaign -- donations ranging from $25 to $4,000 -- that was given by more than 400 people who took a chance on his long-shot candidacy.

"I just wanted them to know that I appreciated it very much, but I withdrew and wanted to return their money," said Schoenke, who left the race for governor this month.

"Hopefully, this gives them some idea of my commitment and sincerity, not only to them, but to the effort," he said.

The gesture certainly got the attention of his financial backers who, as with any campaign contributors, are much like gamblers in knowing this: You place your bets, you take your chances.

"I was pretty well shocked," said John W. Hechinger Sr., the retired former owner of the hardware chain that bears his name.

Hechinger, a former Washington City Council chairman and a long-time Democratic national committeeman, opened the mail one day to find a $1,000 check from Schoenke and a note of thanks.

"I've been in this political game a long time, and I don't recall this ever happening," Hechinger said.

Schoenke, 56, announced he was withdrawing from the Democratic gubernatorial primary on the morning of July 6, hours before the state's deadline for filing for office. He had declared his candidacy for governor in January, at a time when Gov. Parris N. Glendening seemed particularly vulnerable. After an expensive television advertising blitz, Schoenke made little headway and pulled out.

Felt 'he owed it to them'

"He sincerely felt that he didn't want anyone to think he misrepresented his candidacy," said Lawrence N. Rosenblum, a Rockville accountant who got his $150 contribution back.

"He felt that because he had decided not to continue and got out before the filing deadline, he owed it to them to give them their money back -- which is unprecedented in any level of politics I've ever seen," said Rosenblum, a political activist who heads the Montgomery County Business Political Action Committee.

"I did my best to talk him out of it," Rosenblum added. "I told him that in his first foray into politics, he has to understand there's a no money-back guarantee in politics. But my pearls of wisdom fell on deaf ears."

While Schoenke's action is not unprecedented, it is rare.

Hechinger put it this way: "Normally, people who build up a campaign war chest and lose certainly don't return it, and candidates who build up a campaign chest and win and have money left over don't return it.

"And a candidate who withdraws usually has overspent and is in debt and comes back and asks for more money."

Ronald A. Faucheux, publisher of Campaigns & Elections, a national magazine for the political campaign industry, called Schoenke's actions "unusual and commendable."

"Usually candidates don't do it," Faucheux said. "There have been examples, but it's not that often that it happens. In this case, he had the personal capacity to do it."

In withdrawing from the race, Schoenke endorsed Glendening for governor and urged other Democrats to back the incumbent.

That political sentiment was not mentioned in brief letters to contributors. Schoenke did not suggest that his backers send their money to Glendening. "If someone's saying, 'I want to give the governor the money,' that's their business," Schoenke said.

Schoenke campaign donors who had reached the legal limit for political contributions in Maryland are able to redirect that money to another candidate, said Kathleen Hoke Dachille, an assistant attorney general who is counsel to the state election board.

The returned money "would not be counted toward someone's limits," she said.

Maryland law limits to $4,000 the amount of money an individual can give to a single political candidate in a four-year election cycle. For gubernatorial slates -- a candidate for governor and lieutenant governor -- it permits an $8,000 contribution.

Laying the groundwork?

Schoenke himself has been surprised by the reaction he's gotten from his following.

"People have just been very, very kind and gracious and complimentary, but I did not expect that and did not do it with that intention," he said.

Schoenke is in the process of selling his insurance business -- which has 35 employees and satellite offices in Honolulu, St. Louis and Dallas -- -- for $17 million to Clark/Bardes Inc., a nationwide brokerage based in Dallas.

While his first try at politics has been a bittersweet experience, Schoenke has not ruled out the possibility of running for public office again. His latest action could keep him in good stead with potential future backers.

"I thought it was very unique and certainly lays the groundwork for any type of run he may wish to make," Hechinger said.

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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