WASHINGTON -- Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, a trial lawyer long active in Baltimore politics, has become one of the nation's most generous Democratic donors, having contributed at least $265,000 to party committees and candidates this election season.
Angelos, 69, a former Democratic City Council member, says his generosity stems from his allegiance to the party in which he has found a lifelong home.
But the longtime trial lawyer, who made a fortune from successful asbestos liability suits, acknowledges another powerful motivation: his unhappiness with congressional Republicans who are intent on limiting legal liability for damages, an issue that has sent many lawyers sprinting into Democratic arms.
"We should have enough Democrats to temper some of the ideological errors that the Republican majority seem bent on committing," Angelos says. "The Republican Party has spent a huge proportion of its time maligning the legal profession."
"I find that objectionable and unfair," says Angelos, whom the state of Maryland hired as its lead lawyer to sue cigarette companies as part of national anti-tobacco litigation. "The point of [civil lawsuits] is to hold those who injure other people accountable. It should not be demeaned and denigrated by the other party, which should find legitimate issues to talk about."
Supporters of limiting liability say that exorbitant awards by juries -- a large chunk of which go to lawyers -- drive up the cost of liability insurance, affecting not only corporations, but also hospitals, doctors and others who may be at risk of being sued. Legislation to limit liability awards usually runs aground in the Senate because of Democratic opposition.
Angelos' contributions have risen significantly in each of the two elections since Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. Some watchdog groups say that the donations by Angelos, far from merely advancing an ideological agenda, open doors to personal relationships with lawmakers that would not be available to others.
"These are the people who have direct access to both the Clinton administration and high-level officials," says Jennifer Shecter, who tracks political contributions for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group.
The gifts, she says, are "literally the cost of admission. And very few people have the kind of money you need for the cover charge."
In response, Angelos says, "Obviously, through the contributions get to know the leadership at the highest level. It's a very interesting group to know. That's a sufficient consideration in return for the fee."
Some who know Angelos, a liberal Democrat, point to his years of civic activity in Baltimore -- including significant philanthropy -- and describe his political donations as a public service.
"I'm really very much impressed by his willingness to use his wealth to try to advance public causes," says Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, who received $2,000 from Angelos and his wife, Georgia, in 1994.
A survey conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics listed the Angeloses as the country's 54th-most-generous political donors through June 30. Eight other Marylanders made the list of 400 donors, including Cynthia Friedman, a Chevy Chase real estate executive who supports Democratic causes, and Republican donors Frank Perdue, the poultry magnate, and Harvey M. Meyerhoff, the Baltimore developer and philanthropist.
The big money does not go directly to the candidates, who can collect gifts of only $2,000 per donor per campaign. Instead, deep-pocket donors like Angelos give to the party committees, which can, in turn, use this soft money to pay for television commercials or mass mailings on behalf of their party's candidates.
While Angelos and several family members have contributed thousands of dollars to some candidates running for state office, he has not aided the re-election drive of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, with whom he has clashed over stadium issues.
Angelos has continued to boost the size of his donations to Democrats. In 1996, a presidential election year, he gave about TC $150,000; in 1994, he and his wife gave just $6,000 toward federal elections. Angelos said he intended this year's donations to help the re-election drives of Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and Harry Reid of Nevada. In addition, -- Angelos said, he hoped to help Rep. Charles E. Schumer unseat GOP Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York.
He also gave $5,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for an Aug. 3 event set up by Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer featuring Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin. Angelos also recruited other donors for the event, enabling organizers to replenish the campaign war chest for House Democrats with $200,000. And he gave $5,000 to the state party of South Carolina.