Spring fundraising dash begins

After session's finale, politicians waste no time courting donors

April 16, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE AND JILL ROSEN | JOHN FRITZE AND JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTERS

When the gavels slammed down in Annapolis last week to close another legislative session, they also marked, like a starter's gun, the beginning of a statewide money marathon.

With Maryland's election seven months away, and the people's business officially over, dozens of political fundraisers are being scheduled. And the push for cash will grow even stronger as summer approaches.

For some, including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the last day of the session is also the last day of a prohibition against fundraising that state officials must abide by while lawmakers are meeting. With the ban lifted, the money trough is once again open for business.

"You can't waste a second," said Derek Walker, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "It's a fundraising war out there."

If it is a war, Ehrlich may have fired the first salvo. Six hours after the legislature adjourned, the governor's campaign blasted an e-mail to supporters noting that there were "only 211" days left until the election. Now, the e-mail suggested, might be a good time to give.

Because the fundraising ban applies only to state officials, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who are seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, were allowed to seek contributions at will.

"They have been working around the clock, raising money, making campaign appearances and personal attacks against me and my record," Ehrlich's e-mail read.

O'Malley could raise money during the session, but his running mate, Prince George's County Del. Anthony G. Brown, could not. Brown's own e-mail to supporters, sounding similarly dire, arrived just a few hours after the governor's.

"With Ehrlich now freed up from the same fundraising restrictions I faced, he will now continue his rapid fundraising pace from his previous three years in office," Brown's e-mail reads. "This governor may not be good at leading, but he is one fantastic fundraiser."

Ehrlich raised a record $10.4 million the last time around.

While the cost of running a campaign has increased in past years, the demand for money has also gone up. This year, a handful of key - and potentially close - races are forcing candidates to beat the bushes early.

"The primary is not that far off and they have to have money for all the stuff they need," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But Norris - along with several lawmakers - said if it seems busy now, just wait until this summer. The number and size of fundraisers will really begin to pick up toward the middle of May and into June, he said.

Primaries will be held Sept. 12 and the general election will take place Nov. 7.

The most recent campaign finance disclosure statements, which cover Jan. 13, 2005, through Jan. 11, 2006, showed that Ehrlich had $8.4 million in the bank days before the General Assembly began its work. That compares with O'Malley's $4.2 million and Duncan's $1.4 million.

Now campaigns must look to augment fundraising before the next report comes due Aug. 15. A half-dozen Lincoln Day and Jefferson-Jackson dinners are scheduled by county parties this month, and individual delegates and senators are beginning to fill up the calendar in May.

In the last four-year election cycle, current delegates spent nearly $56,000 on average while senators spent about $177,000 on their campaigns - and most expect this cycle will be even more expensive.

Maryland Republicans, hoping to capture enough seats in the State House to avoid the veto overrides that became a hallmark of this session, are targeting more than a dozen Democratic delegates and five senators in conservative districts.

"We'll be fundraising starting tonight," Sen. Sandra B. Schrader said Tuesday. The Howard County Republican planned to have dinner with some businesspeople she hoped to court for the campaign. "It's an ongoing effort that starts right when the session ends."

Maryland's fundraising ban was created in 1997 as a way to curb the appearance of corruption by stopping lawmakers from soliciting campaign contributions while voting on legislation that could affect their donors. Political parties are not covered under the ban.

The contentious session started with the Democratic majority overriding a series of Ehrlich's vetoes, including on a bill that requires Wal-Mart to help pay for employee health care. It ended in a stalemate over how to limit a potential 72 percent rate increase in electricity bills.

Audra Miller, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Republican Party, said that if lawmakers are already out of the gate fundraising it is because they need to make up for a session during which so little was accomplished.

"The members of the General Assembly will need to be campaigning hard in light of them not doing their job," Miller said. "This largely lies at the feet of the majority party."

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