Campaign law gives challengers an edge

Incumbents banned from raising money while legislature meets

December 01, 2005|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

In the unforgiving world of campaign finance, political candidates spend hours working phones, sitting through price-per-plate dinners and courting interest groups - whatever it takes to find an edge and out-raise opponents.

But for the first three months of next year, a handful of candidates for state office will catch a financial break without lifting a finger thanks to Maryland's prohibition against fundraising while the General Assembly is in session. The ban applies only to incumbents, not challengers.

That means that while Democratic gubernatorial candidates Martin O'Malley and Douglas M. Duncan will be allowed to raise money, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will have to sit tight - at least officially. Challengers running for the legislature, attorney general and comptroller will also be able to collect cash while those who already hold office will not.

According to an e-mail by first lady Kendel Ehrlich distributed by the Ehrlich campaign to potential donors late last week, leaders of his camp are concerned at the prospect of not being able to raise money during the session while Duncan and O'Malley can. The e-mail says the campaign - which collected $750,000 in 2002 while then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was barred from soliciting donors - hopes to raise as much money as it can during the final weeks of this year.

The benefit is unclear, especially given the law's loopholes, but political observers say the proliferation of lobbyists working the State House during a session makes it an especially lucrative time to raise money.

"Anybody who isn't prohibited from raising money ... gets a definite advantage," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The lobbyists are there en masse."

Federal exemption

Also exempt from the prohibition are state officials seeking federal office, such as Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is running for U.S. Senate, and state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a 3rd Congressional District candidate. Federal and state campaign accounts are separate entities, subject to different regulations.

Twenty-eight states place at least some restriction on fundraising during the legislative season, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven states ban only lobbyists from contributing and five forbid all contributions to both incumbents and challengers.

Broad state bans have been struck down in recent years, including in Arkansas and Missouri, as unconstitutionally limiting free speech.

Maryland's ban, created in 1997, was designed to curb the appearance of corruption by making it harder for elected officials to solicit campaign contributions from special interests at the same time those interests are lobbying for or against legislation.

"What is really being aimed at is the potential corruption of officeholders, not candidates," said Paul S. Ryan, an associate legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C., public-interest group. "Individuals with business pending before the legislature are most active at that time."

When Ehrlich ran for governor in 2002, he raised more than $750,000 in his main campaign account during the 90-day session - about 10 percent of his total take before that year's election - while Townsend was prohibited from seeking any contributions.

Campaign finance reform advocates argue that the ban leaks with loopholes that let incumbents raise money indirectly through political parties and at speaking events where money changes hands after the fact.

O'Malley said he didn't believe Ehrlich will entirely discontinue fundraising during the session. Still, when asked whether the prohibition could be turned into an advantage, the mayor said he hoped so.

"They won't relent for one day, and neither will we," said O'Malley, who predicted the Bush administration would actively raise funds for Ehrlich throughout the campaign. "They will be working fast and furiously to try to buy Maryland and fortify the governor with as many tens of millions as they possibly can."

Ehrlich officials declined to comment on the prohibition, and calls to the governor's campaign finance director, John Reith, were not returned. A spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, Audra Miller, said the same prohibition will benefit Republican candidates running against incumbent Democratic lawmakers.

Seeking donations

In an Ehrlich campaign e-mail, Kendel Ehrlich writes that the session rule could put the governor at a disadvantage and asks potential donors to make contributions now.

" ... Both Bob and I are concerned about what is going to happen in January when the Maryland legislative session begins and campaign finance laws force our campaign to suspend all fundraising efforts - while our well-funded, left-of-center opponents charge ahead, undeterred by any such restriction. And the legislature could be in session until the end of April!

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