State official elects retirement

The Political Game

Expert: Rebecca M. Wicklund, 54, has spent 30 years at the state election board. Now, the director of the campaign finance division is moving on.

April 04, 2000|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

WHEN REBECCA M. Wicklund began working at the state election board 30 years ago, so few candidates were required to file reports in Annapolis that the records were tossed into a single file box, rarely to be looked at again.

Now, lining the walls of the State Administrative Board of Election Laws are more than 60 five-drawer cabinets with reports for 1,200 campaign accounts, including 250 political action committees.

Wicklund has seen the election board staff grow from a band of three keeping records in a box to 25 workers about to complete the computerization of Maryland's campaign finance reporting system. The new system will allow candidates to file over the Internet and by e-mail next year.

On Friday, the 54-year-old director of the board's campaign finance division quietly called it quits, retiring after three decades.

"I'm going to see what else is out there," Wicklund said. "I'd like to have another minicareer, maybe, for a while."

Since 1970, through the reigns of five governors, the soft-spoken Wicklund has been the glue that has held together the jumble of laws, rules and legal opinions that is the Maryland election code.

"She nurtured the whole modernization of not only the law, but the entire process," said Linda H. Lamone, the state election administrator.

"Becky was able to help people understand the law and guide them through it," Lamone said. "A lot of the provisions, to the uneducated, can be a real trap."

Wicklund assembled a summary guide to the law to ease the pain.

"You have such a cross-section of people as treasurers, chairpersons and candidates," Wicklund said. "I've always been concerned with giving them the rules of the game in a way they understood."

Wicklund started with the board in its infancy. Created in 1969, SABEL was set up to assist local boards with elections, voting and voter registration. It also took over from the Maryland secretary of state the responsibility of collecting, reviewing and auditing statements of campaign expenses.

Wicklund, a Baltimore native who grew up in Annapolis, was one of two clerks hired by the first administrator.

In those days, campaign finance reports contained "very minimal information." No provision in the law provided for enforcement, Wicklund said, and not much public interest was expressed in any of it.

That was until federal investigators turned their attention to political corruption in Maryland, including the affairs of Spiro T. Agnew, the former Baltimore County executive and governor, at the time vice president.

"I remember gathering the files for the feds. That was one of my first assignments," she recalled.

As other state political figures fell, and Watergate heightened the awareness of voters, the state board had a new role. In 1974, it created a separate division to deal with campaign finance issues.

Legislators felt obliged to beef up the election law. But as quickly as the law was tightened, loopholes were found. New ways to get around campaign contribution limits, such as PACs, sprouted.

By the mid-1980s, Wicklund had become the authority, the keeper of the campaign-finance bible -- two volumes of everything about Maryland's arcane law -- in two black binders on her desk.

In her final months, Wicklund has helped usher in the technology that will allow electronic filing of reports by candidates for statewide posts and General Assembly seats. That system will make it easier to enforce election laws, and give the public more and simpler access to the records.

"That's been the most exciting thing that's happened," Wicklund said. "I think it's easier for the users and the filers."

Wicklund felt so strongly about seeing parts of the system in place, confided Lamone, that she postponed her wedding.

That has been rescheduled for September -- when Wicklund hopes to make a honeymoon of the all-expense-paid, weeklong trip to Ireland she won last month in a charity raffle.

She plans to ease into retirement at her Kent Island home.

"It's been a wonderful career -- especially coming in on the ground floor and watching it grow and grow," she said.

Senator traveling to Israel to fulfill grandmother duties

You might call her "Madam Chair" now, but for the remainder of the General Assembly's final week, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman will be known as "Bubbee."

Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, is taking the rest of the week off to travel to Israel to visit her newest grandson in Jerusalem -- the third of four grandchildren born during a legislative session.

With the Senate scheduled to take up the state's $19.6 billion budget last night, she figured it was OK to leave today to attend the bris Friday. She intends to fly back in time for Monday's adjournment.

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