Democratic candidates in three Baltimore County Council races have raised about half their money in events held for them by two lawyers who work for land developers, a phenomenon their opponents say shows special interests have too much influence in local elections.
Campaign finance reports for Tom Quirk of District 1, Gordon Harden of District 5 and Cathy Bevins of District 6 show that each benefited substantially from a separate fundraiser held last fall by lawyers David Gildea and Michael Paul Smith.
Both lawyers, who practice in Towson, represent clients pursuing development projects in the county, and both have ties to outgoing County Executive James T. Smith Jr. Gildea was Smith's law clerk when he was a Circuit Court judge; Michael Paul Smith is the county executive's son. James Smith has formally endorsed Quirk, Harden and Bevins.
The lawyers' event in October for Bevins raised about $25,000, just over 40 percent of her total of more than $58,000. Bevins, of Middle River, worked for James Smith in constituent services for six years ending in February. An event in mid-November for Quirk raised about $34,000 for the financial planner from Catonsville, nearly half his total of about $73,000. Later that month, Harden, of Towson, pulled in $34,000, nearly 60 percent of his total of nearly $58,000.
The figures are estimates based on the dates when the contributions were made and when the fundraisers were held. Development — along with the influence of developers — is a constant issue in races for County Council, where members who propose zoning changes in their own districts are generally not challenged by other members. Rezoning takes place every four years, with the next one due in 2012.
The candidates backed by the lawyers are pursuing three of four open council seats this year. With two incumbents also facing competitive races, this year's election is a rare opportunity for voters to overhaul the council.
Rebecca Dongarra of Catonsville, one of Quirk's four opponents for the Democratic nomination in District 1, said the numbers suggest the familiar role of developers in county politics.
"It's disappointing to me," said Dongarra, who has raised about $28,000 in her first run for elective office. "It's politics as usual and it's unfortunate."
She urged her fellow candidates to resist the constant pressure to mount increasingly expensive campaigns. Some observers estimate that it could cost more than $100,000 to win a contested council seat. The race for county executive has already cost Kevin Kamenetz, the highest spender of the three in the Democratic primary, more than $1 million.
Democratic candidate Gregory Morgan, also of Catonsville, who has raised $69,000, said, "I share the concerns of many voters that developers outside the 1st District are trying to buy political influence on crucial zoning and development decisions in our community. …They have an interests in gaining large amounts of money from certain land use decisions."
State Del. Todd Schuler of Overlea, one of Bevins' two Democratic opponents in District 6, said if Gildea and Smith succeed in getting their favored candidates elected, "it concentrates power in the hands of a few people, and those people are wealthy real estate developers."
Gildea and Smith did not return phone calls requesting comment for this article. The candidates who received their support dismissed the suggestion that they would be improperly influenced as a result of the fundraisers.
"I wouldn't feel beholden to David Gildea because he's never written me a check," said Bevins. "Michael Paul Smith has been my personal friend for 18 years."
Harden said, "The money that I raised is almost exclusively from Baltimore County residents who are doing what they feel is best for Baltimore County. I've gotten donations from people at all walks of life in this community who want to see me on the county council."
Quirk said he would answer to no one but the district's voters.
"Whatever happens, I want to make sure that a majority of people feel good about it," said Quirk. "That's who I am beholden to: the voters, period."