Governor, mayor are in Las Vegas

The taxpayer-funded trips to a shopping-center convention could boost campaign accounts

May 23, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are in Las Vegas today on taxpayer-funded trips that ultimately could prove lucrative for their campaign accounts - even if neither steps inside a casino.

As they have done in past years, O'Malley and Ehrlich are attending the spring convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade association for the retail industry that has steered thousands in campaign donations to both candidates.

While city and state officials say the convention is important for economic development, spokesmen for both campaigns would not comment on whether fundraising would take place at the conference.

City and state officials said it would cost about $50,000 for each delegation, though the city uses private donations to offset some of the travel expense. Ehrlich and O'Malley were in Las Vegas yesterday and expect to remain there today.

"This is a trip that the mayor has made for the last five years that has resulted in significant economic development in the city of Baltimore," said O'Malley campaign spokesman Rick Abbruzzese, who would not comment on whether campaign events will take place - because, he said, the campaign never discusses fundraising strategy.

Weeks after last year's conference, the International Council of Shopping Centers cut O'Malley's campaign a $4,000 check, according to state election finance records. John Bucksbaum, chief executive officer of Chicago-based General Growth Properties and a trustee of the organization, contributed $4,000 to the mayor.

Ehrlich received a $1,000 contribution from the trade group in October and $1,000 from a trustee, Gary D. Rappaport, in December, state records show. How many of the conference's roughly 40,000 attendees give to the campaigns is unknown because the trade organization does not disclose who buys tickets.

"Governor Ehrlich has attended this conference for a number of years, and his primary focus while in Las Vegas will be not only to tout but to boost Maryland's outstanding retail economy," said Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver, who also would not comment on fundraising.

Rappaport, chief executive of McLean, Va.,-based Rappaport Companies, also contributed $1,000 to O'Malley in January. Rappaport said he would have made contributions to both candidates regardless of whether they attended the conference.

"To me, the one has nothing to do with the other," Rappaport said. "If they weren't here, they'd be missing the opportunity that their competition, other states and cities, [is] having."

Economic development officials credit the conference with helping secure retail development in the state and noted that hundreds of elected representatives from across the country regularly attend. Supporters say the conference brings large retailers such as Best Buy together with developers and government officials.

"It is very important, probably the most important show of its kind in the retail industry," said Aris Melissaratos, secretary of Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development.

Melissaratos, who is not attending, said the conference advanced redevelopment of shopping malls in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and helped bring a Wegmans supermarket to Prince George's County.

Celeste Amato, director of business development for the Baltimore Development Corp., said the city conducts dozens of meetings with decision-makers at the convention.

"Face-to-face meetings make a difference," said Amato, who is in Las Vegas. "From a business development perspective, it impresses Realtors and developers when they can shake hands with the mayor of Baltimore."

O'Malley and Ehrlich are involved in what is expected to be the state's most expensive gubernatorial race. Disclosure statements detailing last year's fundraising show that Ehrlich collected $4.6 million, compared with O'Malley's $4.3 million.

O'Malley's Democratic primary rival, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan - who raised about $1.3 million last year - is not attending the Las Vegas event and did not receive a contribution from the organization. A Duncan campaign spokeswoman, Jody Couser, questioned whether the other candidates in the race wanted what happens this week in Vegas to stay there.

Ehrlich and O'Malley, she said, "appear to want to bring a little Vegas back to Maryland, whether it's slots or campaign cash."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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