New Campaign Finance Rules Change the Game in Maryland


This year's race for governor shows why the political big boys delayed public campaign financing for 20 years -- and why the reformers were so eager to test it.

Three of the seven major Democratic and Republican candidates are taking the public money, agreeing to a spending limit and working to build a broader base of financial support, all required by law. Each of the three has added quality to the debate and energy to the campaign.

One of them might actually win.

Even before taking full advantage of the additional $100,000 in public money, Delegate Ellen R. Sauerbrey was doubling her standing in the polls over the summer even as her front-running rival, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, slipped. A substantial gap may still separate the two, but Mrs. Sauerbrey has only just begun to use her money.

"Without the public money we couldn't do it," she says.

If Mrs. Sauerbrey should win this primary, another $997,800 in public funds will slide almost instantly into her campaign accounts. Since she would be barred from spending more than that, all her time could be devoted to the campaign and its issues.

Were she to upset Mrs. Bentley, the public money would have worked a major change in the political landscape. Change has already occurred: Mrs. Bentley must now spend precious resources, all of them privately raised, to survive.

But even if no publicly-assisted candidate wins, the idea of public financing looks like a winner to its proponents. Much of what the reformers had in mind is happening as they hoped it would.

Passed as a political reform in the wake of the Watergate scandal -- in which the special interests were steering huge amounts of money toward their candidates -- public financing in Maryland is a one-time experiment. But even in its limited form it was delayed election after election by incumbent Democrats who thought it would help their opponents.

"The evidence shows it works. The money has helped candidates with some support get more visibility. It's helped to level the playing field,' says Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause in Maryland.

No fan of tax-supported campaign finance, Mrs. Sauerbrey somewhat sheepishly concedes her debt to it. She agreed to take the money, she says, because in Maryland's system the money was volunteered as an add-on by taxpayers.

The House minority leader has been running a textbook primary campaign, appealing passionately to her party's faithful core of tax-hating, government-bashing conservatives. Her message has produced a treasury of more than $700,000, including the public money.

Similarly, one of the two Democratic candidates who has taken the money, State Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski of Baltimore, has given his party's leader-in-the-polls real fits.

"I think we said some things they didn't like," Mr. Miedusiewski understates. The public money allowed him what he called the venue -- radio and television advertisements that permitted him to criticize Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening for over-promising to the big contributing special interests.

Well-spoken and confident, Mr. Miedusiewki emerged from a luster-free legislative career to assert a package of ideas that had him running second in the polls to Mr. Glendening.

His presence mattered even more as the campaign evolved because he often seemed to be filling a vacuum, standing in as a more articulate and forceful opponent that was Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, whose campaign sputtered. Without Mr. Miedusiewski, Mr. Glendening had a freer ride.

If some worry that a candidate such as Mr. Miedusiewski could rise so quickly without a record of experience, ideas or ambition, Ms. Povich says the amount of money is not enough to buy a campaign.

Mrs. Sauerbrey, Senator Miedusiewski and Senator Mary Boergers, a Montgomery County Democrat, are showing why public funding ventilates a process in which cash can slam the door on newcomers, she says.

The impact of wealth, usually referred to as special interest money, is diluted. If the playing field is not leveled by public money in Maryland, it is tilted in the right direction.

For every two dollars raised by a candidate in contributions of $250 or less, the state adds a dollar. Thus, a $250 contribution is worth at least $375 -- more when you consider that fund raising itself is very expensive.

Senator Boergers says she used that concept effectively as she raised more than $500,000.

When the public finance measure passed in 1974, Marylanders were at a low ebb of confidence in their officials. A former governor, Spiro T. Agnew, had been forced to resign in 1973 as vice president amid charges of kickbacks.

But the law was handled in a way that might well have increased cynicism instead. Legislators amended the bill so all 188 Assembly races were included. Delay would be necessary -- since everyone knew there wouldn't be enough money.

The designated test year was moved to 1978. But the General Assembly has amended the law to postpone the test in every statewide election since then. With an open governor's office -- and voters increasingly wary of politicians -- the test was allowed to go forward 20 years late.

Those years mattered in at least one crucial way: The money doesn't go as far as it would have in 1974, thereby giving some candidates an excuse for opting out of the test.

Half the $2.7 million-fund is being used during the primary and is available to those who agree to the overall spending limit.

The limit of about $997,500 was calculated by multiplying the number of Marylanders, approximately 4.8 million, by 20 cents. To qualify, the candidate had to raise at least 15 percent of the maximum.

Candidates in the general election will divide what is left, something over $1 million. If there is only one candidate, he or she would get the maximum allowance.

All the candidates had a decision to make. Those with substantial fund-raising ability asked themselves: If I bypass the public money -- and raise a lot more -- have I aligned myself with the fat cats? Is that something I want to do in the era of anti-incumbent fervor? Could my fund-raising prowess become a liability?

For others, there may be one only question: Do I have a prayer of raising $1 million on my own? Some candidates have suggested that they didn't use the public program because they were opposed to using the taxpayers' money for a campaign. Since this money was voluntarily given, the argument may be a fig leaf for the desire to raise big bucks.

As of the last official fund-raising report, Mr. Glendening has raised more than $3.2 million, Mr. Steinberg $1.8 million and Mrs. Bentley $1 million.

Though he is grateful for the public money, Mr. Miedusiewski says the sums available to his opponents can seem overwhelming. Indeed, the ultimate reformer's dream -- a system in which everyone participates -- does not exist.

"Those people," the senator said, referring to the candidates who declined to participate in the public process, "can saturate the airwaves. They are trying to buy the election. I still think people will rise above the buy-out offer."

What might have happened in 1990, for example, if William S. Shepard, the GOP nominee that year, had been able to use the public money? He might not have won, but he would have gotten his message out.

He was unable to raise the $140,000 or so needed to qualify for the public funds this year, but his view of the public funding process comes closest of any of the candidates' to a reform view.

If elected, he pledged, he would use the public fund process for his re-election. He would give up the advantages of incumbency, in other words, to campaign on the basis of his record and his ideas -- without backing incumbents can always count on.

It is an irony this year that Mr. Miedusiewski, a protege of Mr. Schaefer (one of those who was happy to have public financing delayed) is assisted by the dreaded public money. The political schemers can find a way to work their will even with reforms.

A further level of mischief is possible. Any of the three candidates who have qualified for the public money could claim their share of the General Election fund as write-in candidates. One could theoretically engage in such a race merely to cripple another candidate.

Mr. Miedusiewski says he would not engage in such "dirty pool": For a vote to be counted, a voter would have to spell his name correctly on the ballot. The highest bar to such a transparent move would be the damage it would do for the future.

Some 24 states have some sort of public funding, according to Dr. Herbert E. Alexander, director of the Citizens Research Foundation at the University of Southern California, an expert on campaign finance laws in the United States -- and a proponent of public finance.

"There's a lot of cynicism about the political process," Dr. Alexander says. "A lot of concern about sources of funding. Public funding provides alternaties to candiates.

"I think public funding is desirable because there's need for altrnative sources of campaign finance. It's not that all are bad, but there are perceptions that much of what we have now is not wholesome."

Some believe the taxpayer is not interested in paying for camapaigns, but he says there is evidence that people want a different system and will pay for it voluntarily.

Almost 18 percent of income tax payers currently contribute to public financing of presidential campaigns. A much lower percentage of Americans actually participate in campaigns as contributors, writing a check for a candidate or party. New systems like the one in Maryland allow contributors of small sums to make an impact.

"People are saying, 'Sure, I'll give if it means we have a campaign that is less likely to be swayed by big money,' " Ms. Povich says.

The new and unpredictable dynamic generated by public financing suggests a healthier system -- one in which several strong candidates can stay the primary course. It is a system the concerned voter might get to appreciate if they had a chance, Ms. Povich suggests.

Voters will learn if the state's elected officials want them involved in public financing when Common Cause pushes legislation next year to institute a permanent public financing system for election of governors.

A5 Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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