Funding uneven in Balto. Co. race

Democrat nears $700,000 in campaign for executive

56% from PACs, organizations

GOP opponent's $189,000 down to $30,000 on hand

August 19, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The Democratic front-runner for Baltimore County executive has raised more than three times as much money as his prospective Republican opponent, and heading into the season of expensive political advertising, he has a 15-to-1 advantage in cash on hand.

Former Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr., a Reisterstown Democrat, has raised nearly $700,000 for his campaign, almost all of it since November, according to campaign finance reports released last week. In that time, he has spent more than $200,000, leaving him with $477,379 in the bank.

His opponents don't even come close.

Douglas B. Riley, a Republican and former county councilman from Towson, officially announced his candidacy 18 months ago and was raising money before that. He has raised about $189,000, and has $30,413 on hand.

Joseph Walters, a Bowleys Quarters Democrat who entered the race just before the filing deadline last month, recently crossed the $1,000 fund-raising threshold that triggers the state reporting requirement.

Despite his financial advantage, Smith said he is planning another major fund-raiser for next month. If it is as successful as his previous events, it could easily push him past the $1 million target he set for himself at the beginning of his campaign nearly a year ago.

Smith said last week that the money will be important to help him win but also to introduce himself and his ideas to voters. Giving speeches and campaigning door to door are important, Smith said, but in a county of 750,000 people, they aren't enough to reach everyone.

"My plan is to introduce myself and my vision to the people of Baltimore County. When I am elected, they will hopefully know me and know what my vision is for the county and know they have to be involved in getting it done," he said. "I don't want to get elected and have people say, `Who the hell is Smith? I voted for him because he was a Democrat or because I didn't know enough about his opponent.'"

Riley said he is satisfied with his fund raising so far. He set out an initial goal of $350,000 for the race and said he thinks he will reach that mark. All of the materials he needs - yard signs, pamphlets, office equipment and space - are already paid for, so whatever he raises now will go toward radio and television advertising, Riley said.

"I'm running against the anointed, and we were under no illusion that it would be easy," he said.

Walters, a career Army officer who was an unknown on the county political scene before declaring his candidacy, said he's focusing on cost-free ways to spread his message. Realizing that door-to-door campaigning isn't feasible in so large a county, he said, he's rigged up speakers on a pickup truck and taken to the roads, promising a government more reflective of residents' needs.

"A lot of people have been beeping their horns and waving," Walters said. "I've been shaking a lot of hands and talking to a lot of people. I think it's been real good."

The cost of most executive campaigns has stirred worry among some in the county, notably former County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis. During this campaign, he has repeatedly voiced concerns that even if an executive does not treat large donors differently from other residents, many will still perceive a system of favoritism and that will irreparably damage the people's trust in government.

Riley took the argument a step further. Typically, big businesses and developers are the ones who can afford to make large donations, and they don't do it out of the goodness of their hearts, he said.

"If you give a lot of money, you expect something back," Riley said. "We elected officials say we're only giving them access, but access is a pretty precious commodity and can change the direction of public debate and public policy."

An analysis of the campaign finance report shows that most of Riley's money - nearly 76 percent - has come from individuals. The typical size of a donation to his campaign was $70.

Smith has raised most of his money - almost 56 percent - from businesses, political action committees and other organizations. That's almost exactly the same percentage that County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger raised from organizations and businesses when he was contemplating a bid for governor. A review of the donations showed relatively little overlap among their contributors.

A typical donation to Smith was $180. Smith said he has also been concerned that his large campaign coffers could create perception problems and that he has tried to address them by being accessible to anyone who wants to talk to him during the campaign. He said that would be the case if he were elected, as well.

Smith also noted that at this stage of his life - he is 59 - he has no further ambitions in politics, so he would not make decisions as county executive based on what would land him the financial support needed for higher office.

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