The Mother Of All Loopholes

Our View: Smith's $1 Million War Chest Points To The Influence Of Candidate Slates

July 09, 2009

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has been raising money for months for an all-but-declared campaign for state comptroller. But this week he announced he's not going to run. That surely must be an annoyance for the donors who pushed his account to well upward of $1 million, but it has the potential to do much more damage to the integrity (using the word loosely) of Maryland's campaign finance system.

Mr. Smith is the charter member of the Baltimore County Victory Slate, an entity under Maryland campaign finance law designed to allow like-minded candidates to pool their resources. Its chief feature is that slate members aren't bound by the $6,000 limit on transfers from one candidate to another. They can transfer unlimited amounts of money, giving the dominant player in any slate - in this case Mr. Smith - tremendous power, even if he isn't on the ballot. He can keep his account open for eight years after he leaves office, giving him the potential to sway elections until 2018.

A spokesman for Mr. Smith says the executive hasn't thought about what to do with his money, but the idea that he could heap it on a favored candidate or two is not an abstract concern. In 2006, with no serious opposition of his own, his slate funneled $435,000 into the campaign of a relatively unknown lawyer, Scott Shellenberger, leading to his election as Baltimore County state's attorney. How important was that support? It accounted for 56 percent of the money Mr. Shellenberger raised.

With $1 million, Mr. Smith could effectively pick his own successor. More worrisome is the potential for influence after the recipient of such largesse is elected. Campaign finance laws limit individual contributions to any one candidate to $4,000 per election cycle as a protection against the influence of donations. But how beholden would an elected official be to someone who gives tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars?

There's no indication that Mr. Smith has attempted to influence Mr. Shellenberger or that he would do so in the case of another candidate. But such king-making would inevitably complicate relations between his favored candidates and his friends and allies, particularly if he got involved in the county executive's race. For example, Mr. Smith's son and former campaign manager, Towson attorney Michael Paul Smith, agreed shortly after his father took office not to do business with the county to avoid the potential for a conflict of interest. He has, to his credit, stuck to the policy. But how would an official who owed his or her job to the money raised by the elder Mr. Smith be able to treat the younger Mr. Smith objectively?

There are easy ways to solve this problem, but none have much chance in Annapolis, where incumbents have no incentive to monkey with a system that got them elected.

Eliminating the unlimited transfers between members of a slate would make good sense, but it would likely be dead on arrival given that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has amassed much of his political power that way. And as long as we're dreaming, this loophole offers another good reason to adopt public financing of election campaigns, an idea that failed again this year despite Mr. Miller's unexpected backing.

But dealing in the realm of the possible, perhaps we could at least require that members of a slate actually run for something. That would at least discourage such huge transfers since, in most cases, candidates are worried enough about tending to their own ambitions that they would be inclined to hang onto their cash. Such a rule would force politicians who retire to find something else to do with their money, but existing campaign finance laws offer one solution. They can always give it back.

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