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Low-profile Obama donor has deep pockets

When President Barack Obama comes to Baltimore for a large fundraiser Tuesday at an Inner Harbor hotel, he'll first stop at the home of an Owings Mills developer who has kept a remarkably low profile despite having poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Democratic campaigns over the past decade.

Josh E. Fidler and his wife, Genine, will host Obama for a lunch that will cost guests up to $50,000. That's more than VIPs paid to dine with the president at George Clooney's home in Los Angeles last month. State Democrats predict it will be one of the few fundraisers Obama will attend in Maryland this year.

While they have only dabbled in Maryland politics, the Fidlers are prolific donors to federal Democratic candidates. They have contributed nearly $200,000 since 2008. And as a campaign "bundler," Genine Fidler has raised at least $200,000 for Obama's re-election from others.

Those who know the Fidlers, both 56, say their generosity extends beyond politics. They have given their time to community institutions, including serving on boards at Johns Hopkins Medicine and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

"They step forward and are very much involved in providing leadership in our community," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who has known the family for years and received campaign contributions from them. "In addition, they strongly believe in progressive politics."

That belief has translated into large donations to the Democratic Party and its candidates. Last year, the Fidlers gave more than $50,000, including $5,000 each to Rep. John Sarbanes and Obama and $30,800 to the Democratic Party, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In 2010, the couple contributed $1,300 to Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, now the House majority leader — the only Republican to benefit directly from their largesse in recent years.

Despite extensive political and community involvement, the Fidlers have worked hard to maintain anonymity. Several government officials who interact with developers as well as leaders of competing companies in the Baltimore region, said they had never heard of the Fidlers, though the family runs one of the area's largest development firms, Chesapeake Realty Partners.

The Fidlers did not respond to requests for comment. Many of the groups they have worked with over the years also did not respond.

"He's involved to make a difference, not to promote himself," said Andy Segall, a Pikesville-based commercial real estate broker who partners with Chesapeake Realty on retail developments.

Obama's trip to Baltimore comes days after the campaigns disclosed that Republican challenger Mitt Romney outpaced his fundraising efforts in May. Donors gave $60 million to Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee last month, compared with $76.8 million to Romney and the Republican Party, according to the campaigns.

Conservative third-party groups and super-PACs, meanwhile, are also raising more than their pro-Obama counterparts.

The fundraiser at the Fidler home is similar to several small, high-priced events the president has attended across the country. He visited three homes to raise cash during trips last week to California and New York. After the Owings Mills event, Obama will attend an afternoon fundraiser at the Inner Harbor Hyatt Regency that sponsors hope will raise about $1 million.

Tickets to the hotel event run from $250 to $10,000.

Both fundraisers will draw top state Democratic leaders, including Cardin and Gov. Martin O'Malley.

"He's clearly taking Maryland for granted," state Republican Party Chairman Alex X. Mooney said of Obama, noting that the president has no public events scheduled during his brief trip to Maryland, which has reliably voted for Democratic candidates since 1992. "We would like for him to come here and compete for votes."

Romney campaigned in Arbutus in March as the Republican primary was under way, but has not returned and isn't likely to. Romney's wife, Ann, will be in the area on the same day as Obama, holding a private fundraiser in a hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

In turning to the Fidlers, the Obama campaign is tapping the deep Maryland ties of Genine Fidler's family. Her father, Morton J. Macks, founded a homebuilding company in 1946 that became one of the region's largest. In a particularly high-profile deal, he and Willard Hackerman of Whiting-Turner Contracting bought an old Baltimore railroad warehouse in 1983. Eight years later, the site was selected for Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Morton J. Macks handed leadership of the company over to his son, Lawrence M. Macks — also a generous political donor — and Josh Fidler in the 1980s. But business associates and competitors say that the senior Macks' vision and stewardship is still a driver of the company's success.

"What sets them apart is Morty Macks," said Martin K.P. Hill, who founded a competing homebuilding company in the 1970s.

In an email, prominent Baltimore developer David Cordish called the Fidlers "quality people."

Genine Fidler — described as a "true Baltimore girl" by a longtime family friend — graduated from the Park School in Brooklandville in 1973. She met Josh Fidler at Brown University, where both graduated in 1977, and went on to earn law degrees at New York University.

Josh Fidler was diagnosed with a brain tumor seven years ago that was treated by Johns Hopkins doctors, according to a biography posted on the hospital's website. He now sits on Hopkins' Neurosurgery Advisory Board. A spokeswoman for the department did not respond to a request for comment.

Chesapeake Realty has overseen dozens of residential and retail projects in the region, including the Honeygo Village Center, a mixed-use development in Baltimore County. The company announced last year that it was starting work on five new apartment complexes in the Mid-Atlantic region at a cost of $186.5 million, including a 193-unit apartment building and parking garage in South Baltimore.

Some of the company's projects have sparked controversy. Chesapeake Realty is battling environmentalists over a proposed 156-home development adjacent to Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, for instance. Opponents say the project would violate the state's Forest Conservation Act because it calls for felling trees that are considered a high priority for conservation.

David Prosten of the Sierra Club's Anne Arundel County chapter said the company has made only minimal efforts to compromise. The Annapolis Board of Appeals is reviewing the project.

"It's been a struggle with these folks," said Prosten, who said the community has engaged with Fidler's attorneys, not Josh Fidler directly. "The developer is basically sticking to his guns."

An attorney for Chesapeake Realty, Stanley S. Fine, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

But other community groups have a more positive impression. When the South Baltimore Neighborhood Association raised concerns about limited parking around the company's project at 1901 S. Charles St., the developer quickly decided to require prospective tenants to purchase a spot in the building's parking garage, said the association's president, Amy Mutch.

Chesapeake has been engaged with the community, Mutch said, regularly attending its meetings.

Despite their work in the region, the Fidlers are not big contributors to local and state candidates. Together, the two have given about $14,000 to Maryland campaigns since the beginning of the 2006 state election cycle, including to Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, both Democrats.

Like many developers, Chesapeake has relied on construction loans that are insured by the Federal Housing Administration, which allows the company to receive lower interest rates. Chesapeake has two projects under way that have received the support and has been associated with at least 10 others, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"They do quality work," said Kevin McAndrews, president of Baltimore-based Atapco Properties. "That's why we're in a business with them."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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