Candidates scramble for campaign money


It's called political fund raising, but the show might be called "Scramble for Dollars," featuring local candidates, lobbyists, special interests and a few political unknowns hoping to become known.

Anyone who's attended any of the iced tea and chicken wing receptions this month knows this.

One thing is certain: Their races for the county executive, County Council, the General Assembly and other local offices won't be cheap.

Four years ago, Democratic incumbent M. Elizabeth Bobo spent on her county executive campaign compared with the $82,961 spent by challenger, Charles I. Ecker, a Republican who won the county executive post.

Democrat Sue-Ellen Hantman, who plans to enter the race against Mr. Ecker tomorrow, says she does not intend to become a sacrificial lamb. Her entrance into the race apparently means that Mr. Ecker is going to have to spend some money on his own campaign instead of helping other Republicans, as some candidates had hoped.

In 1990, Mr. Ecker lent his campaign $30,000 -- a loan which has since been repaid. He said last week he has about $70,000 in his campaign treasury, is receiving campaign contributions daily and has more fund-raisers on the horizon. Ms. Hantman has not yet held a fund-raiser.

"No candidate likes to ask for money," Mr. Ecker said. "I wish there were some other way" to campaign.

"Campaigning has gotten so expensive -- that's part of the problem," Mr. Ecker said. He said he will be airing a commercial on cable television soon at a cost of more than $1,300, including repeated air time and production costs.

"That's cheap compared to newspaper ads," he said. "A full-page ad can run $1,200 or more per issue."

Mr. Ecker's campaign strategy in 1990 was to run cable television spots in conjunction with full-page ads in a local newspaper. He said he plans this time to advertise in more than one newspaper.

County Council races may not be much cheaper.

For instance, Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat, had no opposition in 1990 yet spent $33,000. This time, he faces a tough primary fight, and a Republican waits to challenge the winner of the primary.

Four years ago, Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a Republican, faced similar challenges in the primary and general elections and spent $43,000, the most of any council candidate.

With heated battles expected in all but one council district, this fall's races could easily match 1990 totals. And a change in election laws allows donors to give candidates four times as much this year.

The contribution limits for this election have been raised to allow an individual to give a maximum of $10,000, provided no more than $4,000 is given to any one candidate. In 1990, the ceilings were $2,500 overall and $1,000 per candidate.

The higher contribution ceilings already have meant higher ticket prices.

In previous years, local politicians frequently charged as little as $5 for a ticket to a fund-raiser; $25 a ticket was common; and incumbents under siege occasionally charged $50 for an event.

This year, $25 is standard for even modest events.

Business people, developers and special interest representatives are the biggest ticket buyers.

Unaligned voters rarely attend fund-raisers. Whatever crowd there is -- always a fraction of the votes needed in an election -- consists of campaign workers, party faithful, people with special interests and virtually every other candidate running for office.

Party affiliation doesn't seem to matter.

When Democrat Kay Hartleb, who is seeking re-election to a third term as register of wills, held her $25-a-person fund-raiser at an Ellicott City restaurant June 7, many people left early to attend a Republican event in Marriottsville.

There, GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey was holding a $100-a-person affair. The ticket price swelled to $500-a-person for a private reception before the fund-raiser with former Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp, considered a GOP presidential hopeful.

Bringing in celebrity guests and charging more to attend a reception with them before the general fund-raiser is a favorite tactic of candidates attempting to raise large sums of money.

The night before Ms. Sauerbrey's fund-raiser, for instance, Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes held a $100-a-person event in Baltimore. Vice President Al Gore was the celebrity guest and contributors paid $500 to attend a reception with him.

A Howard County resident attending all the fund-raising events for local candidates during the week of June 6 would have spent nearly $1,500 if taking the celebrity politician option; about $700 if not.

Some of the party faithful are having a tough time keeping up. "I'm expected to attend every fund-raiser, but I'm not given complimentary tickets," said Carole Fisher, chairwoman of the local Democratic Central Committee. "It gets pretty expensive."

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