President's visit to Baltimore raises $500,000 in `soft money'

Clinton congratulates governor on attempts to reduce handgun crime

March 16, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Jonathan Weisman and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

With an extended plug for his vice president and a stern warning that good economic times could end with a change of economic policies, President Clinton helped raise more than $500,000 for the Democratic Party last night at an Inner Harbor dinner that drew more than 100 of Maryland's top officials and party faithful.

The $5,000-a-plate event for the Democratic National Committee at the Harbor Court Hotel was the latest in a series designed to raise $100 million in "soft money" for the national party's effort in the fall to support Vice President Al Gore against Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Though the Democrats have loudly called for a ban on such donations, they were unapologetic last night in soaking it up.

"What we do here is not to violate any charge or any commitment that we have to see to it that American politics works well for the public," Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos told the assembled politicians and monied donors.

"What we do here tonight is to raise the money that we need to see to it that the Democratic Party shall be successful in the future."

Keeping up with the GOP

Angelos, a top national Democratic fund-raiser who was responsible for about $250,000 of the money brought in last night, said such fund-raisers could barely keep pace with a far better-financed GOP.

"We never do keep up. They raise $3 for every $1 we do," said Angelos, co-host of the event with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

O'Malley, who met Clinton's helicopter at Fort McHenry and traveled in the presidential motorcade to the hotel, raised $200,000 for the event -- his first effort on the national level.

Clinton's speech dwelt at some length on the accomplishments of Gore, going beyond his more customary asides about the vice president's contributions to the Clinton White House.

But Clinton lingered longest on his current battle with the National Rifle Association over the extension of mandatory background checks to firearms purchased at gun shows.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but I think it's worth a little inconvenience to save a lot of lives."

Support for Glendening

The president threw his support behind Gov. Parris N. Glendening's embattled gun safety legislation, holding up Maryland as an example for a Congress that is deadlocked over new gun sale restrictions.

Glendening's proposal, mired in a conservative Maryland Senate committee, would require handguns sold in Maryland to be equipped with devices to prevent them from being fired by unauthorized users.

The fund-raiser was attended by more than 100 people, including Glendening, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and Benjamin L. Cardin, and City Council President Sheila Dixon.

"It's always great to have the president in town," said state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, another attendee.

"It's very important for the party to raise money to make sure we keep a Democrat in the office -- and keep the good economic times we've had under Mr. Clinton."

All week, at fund-raisers in Cleveland and the Chicago area, at White House events and on television, Clinton and the National Rifle Association have waged a remarkably pitched battle.

NRA President Charlton Heston fired the first shots last week with a series of television commercials all but calling the president a liar for inflating the number of children killed by guns and for blaming the gun lobby for the dearth of gun control bills emerging from Congress.

Over the weekend, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne La-Pierre said Clinton is "willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda."

Although Gore huffed about a "sickness at the very heart of the NRA," the president appeared to revel in the combat.

At a White House event yesterday, Clinton chortled that he was "a little tickled over the weekend when they got a little rough with me."

"I have so much scar tissue now, I can't even feel it," he joked.

But beneath the rhetoric is real legislation -- stalled in Congress since last summer -- that would require background checks for firearms purchasers at gun shows and the sale of trigger locks, raise the legal age of handgun possession to 21, and ban the importation of high-capacity ammunition clips.

Shortly after the massacre at Columbine High School, the Senate passed the measure by a single vote as part of a broad bill to tighten juvenile justice laws. Gore cast the tie-breaking vote.

But the House, under heavy pressure from the NRA, balked.

No conference committee

Ever since, GOP leaders have resisted pressure to meet in conference with the Senate to resolve their differences on the juvenile justice bill -- and to decide the fate of the Senate-passed gun control measures.

House Republican Leader Dick Armey said this week that he would seek to pass a juvenile justice bill without the gun control measures, a move Clinton and Democratic leaders strongly oppose.

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