Money for nothing?

September 14, 2007

Developers in Anne Arundel County sure must be dimwits. Or maybe they're just chumps. How else to explain that so many of them helped raise $100,000 at a fundraiser for Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold this week? This is, after all, the same guy who during last year's campaign emphasized that he would never be beholden to any special interest.

Certainly, there's nothing unusual about developers giving political contributions to county executives. Everyone does it. Executives have a big say in whether projects get the necessary government approvals. Developers can hardly afford not to be on their good side.

But Mr. Leopold is anything but typical. He waged a campaign that emphasized his arm's-length approach to the "growth industry" and that he wasn't part of the "good ol' boy" network of politicians and developers. And, indeed, his campaign finances reflected his attitude: Mr. Leopold spent more than a quarter-million dollars of his own savings on his candidacy, but his Democratic opponent still outspent him by a 3-to-1 ratio.

Mr. Leopold's explanation is that he never said he wouldn't take money from developers, only that there would be no quid pro quo. In other words, his contributors got nothing for showing up Monday evening at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront except some pleasant food and drink.

"They want favorable treatment," he acknowledges when asked why developers might be writing him $4,000 checks. "They've asked for certain actions, and I've rejected those requests."

No one is suggesting Mr. Leopold is particularly pro-development, at least not judging by his first nine months in office. His plight is also familiar: A county executive without a big pot of campaign money is seen as weak and vulnerable.

But appearances matter, and taking money from the same people you decry comes off as hypocritical. Taking that money just as the county is about to rewrite its comprehensive plan (with billions of dollars of development at stake) makes matters worse - and underscores the need for local residents to monitor this process closely.

Perhaps developers are just following a well-established way of doing business that has nothing to do with who is in office. Whatever the cause, Mr. Leopold is caught in a system that leads elected officials to take money from those trying to buy influence. If there's a way out of this trap other than public financing of campaigns, we haven't come across it yet.

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