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Cardin off the 2010 ballot but in the game

Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin has the good fortune to be the only member of the state's congressional delegation not facing an angry electorate this fall (his seat is up in 2012, and he's already running an unannounced re-election campaign).

Just because his job's not immediately at risk doesn't mean he's on the sidelines, though. Cardin is playing an active role, behind the scenes, as a money man. Tonight, he'll add to his 2010 campaign fund with a dinner for lobbyists at Charlie Palmer Steak, conveniently located just steps from Senate offices on Capitol Hill and a whirlwind of political money activity this week.

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Proceeds from Cardin's event (tickets are $2,500 and $5,000) will go to LEG PAC, a so-called Leadership PAC controlled by the Maryland senator, who like most members of Congress isn't actually in the leadership, but that's how these things got started so that's what they're called.

Senators and congressmen use the accounts to gather donations from special interests and then redirect it to other candidates, political parties and -- the main point-- their own ambitions. Think of it as a form of legalized money-laundering.

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The way it works: Special interest groups--trade associations, corporations, labor unions and others--donate up to $10,000 per election to the fund. Then the lawmakers, in this case Cardin, distribute the largesse to their colleagues, earning gratitude in the process.

This fall there's another incentive: with majority control of Congress at stake, helping an endangered colleague win re-election could spell the difference between governing in the majority or suffering in the minority for the next two years.Cardin's PAC capitalized on the recent special-interest fight over health care, grabbing donations from the cardiologists, dermatologists, emergency physicians, anesthesiologists, ophthalmologists, dentists and psychiatrists. Also, Medimmune, CVS/Caremark, the trial lawyers and the Houston law firm Locke, Lord, Bissell & Liddell.

Other corporate interests who gave included Constellation Energy, Mass Mutual Life Insurance, the Realtors, the National Association of REITs, Fidelity investments and Prudential Financial, along with defense contractors Eads North America, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics.

Labor union contributors included AFSCME, the IBEW, Air Traffic Controllers, Machinists and Food and Commercial Workers.

And where did the money go? The campaign arm of Senate Democrats got $30,000. The Maryland Democratic Central Committee got $10,000. Cardin also gave directly to Senate colleagues in tough races, including Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Barbara Boxer of California and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who each got $5,000, as did Kendrick Meek, seeking an open Senate seat in Florida.

Finally, there were the donations to those who didn't need the money, since they are considered strong bets for re-election. Maryland colleague Barbara A. Mikulski got $5,000, as did Vermont Sen. Pat Leahy, who is Cardin's boss on the Judiciary committee.

As of June 30, Cardin's PAC had collected $117,600 and directed $77,500 to other Dems and party entities.

To put that into perspective, Cardin's PAC ranks 140th in the amount of money donated to other candidates, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in campaigns.

The indefatigable Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Majority Leader, has raised more than $2.4 million and distributed $886,000 to fellow Democrats in the 2010 campaign. That puts him first among Democrats but second overall to his Republican counterpart, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the minority whip, who has raked in more than $3 million and funneled $1.2 million to GOP candidates in the fight for control of the House this November.

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