O'Malley raising the stakes at event

Big-money backers urged to give maximum $4,000

Mayor's friends push donations

April 18, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

In Maryland, prying $4,000 from political contributors in one sitting has recently required a considerable amount of presidential persuasion. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did it last year by having President Bush available for photos with $4,000 ticket-holders. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend did it by seating her top donors at President Clinton's dinner table.

Now Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is asking his wealthiest backers to pay $4,000 for the exclusive portion of his May 14 fund-raiser at Ravens Stadium. Yet no president, past or present, is set to attend. Just O'Malley, and his cadre of loyalists enlisted to pack the house however they see fit.

"He's all we need," said Colleen Martin Lauer, O'Malley's fund-raising consultant.

With the Sept. 9 Democratic primary fast approaching, the $4,000 price tag - the most the mayor has ever charged - is buttressing O'Malley's image as the unbeatable incumbent armed with a campaign treasury that already exceeds $1 million.

Some of his most ardent supporters are already on the street urging friends, family and business associates to get the campaign contributions flowing.

In Little Italy, Mary Ann Cricchio, co-owner of Da Mimmo restaurant, is stirring controversy by pressuring her company's suppliers to pitch in to help O'Malley raise money at next month's event.

Last year, Cricchio and other O'Malley loyalists delivered more than $1 million in contributions at the same venue. A repeat performance this year, at higher prices, will surely give the mayor at least $2 million to further weaken the chances of real competition.

The General Assembly's failure to move the primary to next year to coincide with the 2004 general election caught many potential rivals by surprise. With only five months before the primary, the few challengers who have emerged have little time to raise the cash needed to pose a real threat, political observers said.

Except, perhaps, Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, whose candidacy is still just speculation.

"He's the only candidate who could raise that kind of money," said Gene Raynor, a Schaefer adviser. "He could raise it within two months."

Absent Schaefer or some other high-profile challengers, O'Malley appears to have more than enough money to mount a successful campaign. Whatever money remains could help elect a friendly City Council. The rest would come in handy in 2006.

Money for 2006

"He's not only raising money for the mayoral campaign, he's raising money for a gubernatorial bid" in 2006, said potential rival Carl Stokes, a former City Council member and failed mayoral candidate against O'Malley in 1999. "He has more than enough money to run a stronger campaign than he did four years ago."

The $4,000 ticket price is not a randomly picked figure. Under state law, $4,000 is the maximum any one donor can give to any candidate in a four-year cycle. The state's new cycle began in January and already O'Malley is asking his big-money backers to max out on him.

"He's the front-runner for mayor, and he's maximizing his potential," said Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who is considering a run for City Council president. "He's also trying to raise his profile for bigger and better things."

Most political observers have been quick to agree that campaign contributors will readily pay the price despite O'Malley's self-deprecating expectations. The $4,000 ticket price, the mayor said recently, "is for my three friends who want to sit on my lap."

So what will O'Malley's $4,000 donors get for their money if not a photo with Bush or a dinner with Clinton?

Time.

O'Malley's $4,000 friends - whom his campaign has dubbed VVIPs - begin their reception with O'Malley at 5:30 p.m., a full hour before the $1,000 donors arrive. That places a $50 value on each of the extra 60 minutes those top-tiered backers get over the mid-tier supporters. The crowd paying the lowest price of $250 arrives at 7:30 p.m.

O'Malley's fund-raiser last year, which attracted 1,700 people, consisted of two tiers: $250 and $1,000.

"Many of those who came to the $1,000 fund-raiser last year said there were too many people there," O'Malley said. "So that's why we're doing a smaller group for those who can help me at that $4,000 level."

O'Malley said he has asked nearly 200 friends to start spreading the word about the May 14 fund-raiser, a plea that one supporter, Cricchio, pursued almost immediately.

Cricchio's letter

Cricchio sent a letter dated March 31 to her restaurant's suppliers strongly urging them to buy tickets to the mayor's fund-raiser.

The letter reads, in part: "Da Mimmo does more business today, because of the hard work of Mayor O'Malley. When Da Mimmo does more business, you do more business as a supplier to Da Mimmo."

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