An excess of dollars perverts elections

Funds: In Maryland, the political campaign as "marketplace of ideas" has been superseded by a money grab that ruins the democratic process.

October 19, 2003|By Paul G. Pinsky and Julian L. Lapides | Paul G. Pinsky and Julian L. Lapides,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In a democracy, election campaigns don't just elect candidates to office. They also serve as a "marketplace of ideas," a forum for discussing and debating the direction of public policy.

In years past, election campaigns more often served this noble role. Voters, in many election contests, had more of a chance to see and hear and question candidates, at front doors, in community debates and all sorts of local gatherings.

Those days now seem terribly quaint. The traditional currency of successful campaigns - personal connections and contacts with voters - has morphed into big money. Candidates today don't concentrate on connecting with voters. They concentrate primarily on connecting with deep-pocket contributors.

This perversion of our democratic process doesn't end on Election Day. The big contributors who bankroll our election contests don't simply walk away after the votes are counted. They hover behind every elected official's shoulders. They enjoy easy access. They wield disproportionate influence.

In Maryland, the connection between contributions to candidates and political appointments and contentious legislation on issues ranging from corporate taxation to power deregulation is impossible to ignore.

A poll last year by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore made it clear that Marylanders aren't fooled. Ninety-five percent of Marylanders, the survey found, said they believe that campaign contributions influence the policies of our state's elected officials. More than two-thirds of Marylanders, 69 percent, said they feel that candidates spend too much time raising funds. Eighty-three percent said they believe that contributors have easy access to elected officials.

How important is campaign financing to who gains elected office in our state? Sixty-seven percent said they believe that campaign financing is the "single most important factor" in elections. Even more Marylanders, 75 percent, said they consider fund raising a major source of corruption in our state.

The defenders of the status quo tend to write off such concerns about campaign financing as paranoia. But look at the numbers. We have some good ones, thanks to a recent study by Paul S. Herrnson for the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In 2002, Herrnson's research shows, candidates elected to Maryland's state Senate spent twice as much on their campaigns as the candidates they beat. On average, state Senate candidates who failed to raise more than $42,000 couldn't get past the primary election. The salary, incidentally, for a Senate seat in Maryland is $34,500.

Overall, from 1998 to 2002, the dollars collected to win seats in the Maryland General Assembly nearly doubled.

The study also says incumbents spent nearly twice as much as challengers, and those seeking re-election who faced no opposition were the most successful fund-raisers. Candidates with the most intimidating and biggest campaign funds had no opponents. They scared away possible opponents.

Two state Senate races last year proved especially alarming. In one rural northeast Maryland race, the two combatants spent $1.7 million. In a Western Maryland contest, the campaign spending total came to a whopping $2.5 million. This was to elect a state senator, not a U.S. senator. Candidates for Maryland's House of Delegates are working hard to keep pace. One district race last year cost up to $900,000 for the candidates.

The big money isn't pouring into only state races. In Montgomery County, developer interests dumped $1.7 million into the campaigns of their "favored" local candidates last year. The "nonfavored" candidates received a total of $27,000 from these same developers. The $1.7 million received from developers accounted for nearly 59 percent of the $2.9 million received from all sources by the developer-favored candidates. And money surely talked. Every developer-supported candidate won.

Maryland does have individual campaign contribution limits, but these are easily sidestepped. Ten top corporate executives from the same company can legally write checks for up to $4,000 each. There's also a new game in town: A wealthy corporate player can set up a dozen separate business entities with different names and interchangeable boards. Then, each one of those entities can give $4,000 to the same candidate - legally. This is the ploy that race track owner William Rickman Jr. used in the last election.

A broken system

Our current campaign finance system is clearly broken. Candidates spend far too much time raising money. These candidates, in turn, become far too beholden to their contributors. The need to raise gargantuan sums of money discourages many potential candidates from even considering making a run. Fund raising too frequently decides who wins elections. Money is overwhelming democracy.

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