Money flows to political races

Timing of donations can be influential in getting legislation

November 10, 2001|By David Nitkin and Howard Libit | David Nitkin and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

If money is the mother's milk of politics, then it flows in Maryland in great gulps.

A year's worth of campaign finance data released this week show political donors to state candidates are parting with cash in large chunks - with their donations often timed to influence legislation.

Consider:

The state's leading political figures, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, took in at least 75 percent of their donations in contributions of $500 or more, much of them coming from labor unions, political action committees and corporations with business interests in the state.

Prominent officeholders such as Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. have quietly amassed six-figure campaign treasuries that have the potential to discourage potential opponents from launching challenges.

At least $1 million poured into the coffers of legislators and political action committees in the few weeks before the last annual legislative session in Annapolis - a time when politicians are most likely to remember who gave to them as they consider new industry regulations and other laws.

Only now, nearly a year later, are the reports of the contributions made before the January opening of the last session released; a legislative push for more prompt disclosure died in the legislature this year.

"Whoever is paying for the elections is going to have an enormous amount of control over them," said Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland, an umbrella organization of community groups working on campaign reform issues. "If special interests pay for the elections, then special interests will have the say about what gets done."

A recent computer upgrade at the Maryland Board of Elections means that more campaign finance information is available on the Internet than ever before, and thus subject to instant analysis. Maryland candidates were required to send their reports by computer or mail them by Thursday. By yesterday afternoon, 60 percent to 70 percent of filings were available on the state's system, said Ross Goldstein, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the Board of Elections.

Among other things, the data paint a fuller picture of the many low-cost political events used by Townsend and her aides in the past year. The lieutenant governor is proud of the $10-a-head celebrations of her 50th birthday held throughout the state this summer that attracted thousands.

Although they fatten her donor list, the events don't provide the serious cash Townsend will need in next year's race for governor. For that, she must turn to political action committees, unions and business executives. Of the $1.8 million Townsend collected during the past year, almost $1.4 million arrived in checks of $500 or more.

Townsend's largest single donation - $6,000 -- was from the Maryland Psychological Association Political Action Committee. Among the other large donors are the Seafarers Political Activity Fund of Towson ($5,000), Bricklayers and Allied Contractors PAC of Washington ($4,500), United Mine Workers of America ($4,000) and the American Federation of Teachers ($4,000).

Large corporate donations included Century Engineering of Towson ($5,000), Tudor Farms of Cambridge ($4,000), FleetBoston Financial of Boston ($4,000) and drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co. of Harrisburg, Pa. ($4,000).

Among out-of-state donors, Townsend collected $8,000 from Cheryl and Haim Saban of Los Angeles, co-owners of Fox Family Worldwide; and $8,000 from Eileen and Dennis Bakke of Arlington, Va. Dennis Baake is CEO of AES Corp., a power company.

"We hope and we think these are folks who are impressed with her and want good leadership," said Jeffrey Liss, Townsend's campaign treasurer. "She has a lot of supporters who are very generous, and she's delighted at that support."

While Townsend is criticized in some circles for turning to family, friends and supporters in other states, the finance data show that O'Malley, too, collects significant donations from outside Maryland.

Of the $857,453 the mayor raised last year, more than 11 percent - $97,900 - came from other states. Donors included Andrew, Raquel and Justin Segal of Houston, who gave a combined $10,000. Andrew Segal owns commercial property in Baltimore.

Similar to Townsend, O'Malley received most of his money in larger donations: 77.6 percent came in chunks of $500 or greater. O'Malley has not ruled out running for governor in 2002 and has said he will decide after next year's legislative session.

O'Malley's largest donors included CitiFinancial Management Corp. of Delaware ($4,000), Paragon Construction of Owings Mills ($4,000) and Ravens owner Arthur B. Modell ($4,000).

The campaign statements also show that other politicial figures are fattening their bank accounts as election season approaches.

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