Race becomes run for money Schrader and Robey go to interest groups for campaign funding

October 20, 1998|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

With two weeks before the general election Nov. 3, developer and parking lot magnate Kingdon Gould Jr. was the host for an invitation-only fund-raiser for Howard County executive candidate Dennis R. Schrader at Gould's home Friday in North Laurel.

Schrader's Democratic opponent, James N. Robey, has asked development financier J. P. Bolduc to raise campaign funds for him.

Taken separately, the two events seem innocuous. But they illustrate the competition among candidates to secure lucrative campaign contributions from interest groups with financial influence -- groups such as the development industry.

The debate over the propriety of the funding is as varied as the amounts written on the checks.

Developers such as James Moxley Jr. say the contributions are examples of their civic interest in electing the right people to the right positions.

"It's peanuts," Moxley, president of the Ellicott City-based Security Development Corp., says of his $600 donation to Schrader. "I think it's business people's responsibility to help political aspirants because someone has to fund the campaigns. Developers are just one of those business people."

Local activists such as John Taylor say "business people" are not in the habit of being generous.

"I think it's nonsense that their contributions don't matter and that they don't expect anything in return," says Taylor, former president of Howard Countians for Responsible Growth. "That's why they open their checkbooks."

Business has a stake

It's no surprise that special interest groups have been active in electoral races. Supporters and opponents recognize that businesses have as much of an interest in the lawmakers expected to lead a jurisdiction as the residents who live in it do.

In Howard, developers have not been shy about becoming involved in races. Some say the genesis for their participation was a moratorium on building imposed by County Executive Elizabeth Bobo in 1989.

"Eight years ago, development was an issue as much as was the personality of Liz Bobo," said John F. Breitenberg, a Clarksville lawyer who has represented Gould. "The reason why Chuck won was that it was a vote against Liz Bobo, not a vote for Chuck Ecker."

When Susan B. Gray, Highland lawyer and slow-growth advocate, challenged Ecker in 1994, developers -- frightened by Gray's campaign promise to rein in unbridled growth -- flooded Ecker's war chest with thousands of dollars.

Robey says he had accepted $1,000 from the development community by the end of August, but Schrader had accepted about $80,000 from commercial and residential developers.

Last week, Schrader returned about $19,000 to 41 contributors representing 25 contractors he worked with in his job as vice president at the University of Maryland Medical System.

Despite taking developers' contributions, Schrader portrayed his Republican primary opponent, Charles C. Feaga, as a growth-friendly candidate in ads indicating Schrader would say "no" to developers. The irony is not lost on Moxley.

"He did what he thought would be best to beat Feaga," he says of Schrader. "Personally, I feel it's unfair, but it's politics."

Outgoing Republican Councilman Darrel E. Drown of Ellicott City blames the spiraling economics of running a countywide campaign for candidates' eagerness to accept contributions from developers. Drown estimates that a candidate for county executive must raise at least $100,000 to run an effective campaign.

"You can be the nicest, sweetest guy, but you're not going to win," he says, noting the costs of mailings, opinion polls and advertisements on cable television. "Big checks are very important."

What the developer earns as a result of donating to a successful campaign is a matter of debate. Many developers say they are interested only in electing a "good government" that offers a stable and predictable atmosphere for growth.

Donald L. Reuwer, president of Land Design and Development Inc. in Columbia, scoffs at the suggestion that an honest candidate can be bought.

"What fool in his right mind thinks that $4,000 [the maximum contribution from an individual] will buy Dennis Schrader or Jim Robey?" he says.

But Donald Manekin, a senior vice president of the Manekin Corp. in Baltimore, says he expects access to the executive.

"From time to time, you get something stuck," says Manekin, whose $1,300 contribution to Schrader was returned because he was a University of Maryland Medical System contractor. "And sometimes you want to get the ear of the county executive and ask for a little push to get it unstuck."

Such comments anger slow-growth activists, who say such access is inappropriate.

"A person on the street does not gain that opportunity by contributing," says Greg Fries, chairman of the Southern Howard Land Use Committee, an umbrella group of community associations that fought Rouse Co. plans for a residential community in North Laurel. "I think therein lies a conflict."

Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a political watchdog group, contends that it becomes more difficult for a lawmaker to ignore a donor when he calls.

"How can you say to a contributor who calls or stops by, 'I'm sorry, but I'm too busy to talk to you' ?" Skullney says. "These are business people who don't throw around their money for philanthropic reasons."

Pledging independence

Robey and Schrader say they have not updated their campaign finance reports since last month, but both pledge to remain independent of contributors and their goals.

Many observers agree that as long as there is room to grow in Howard, developers will continue to be a powerful source of funding.

"It's only natural to gravitate to where the money is," says Drown. "The almighty dollar always talks in the end."

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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