Election financing gains fans

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Moved by the apparent success of Maryland's first experiment in publicly financed elections, Democratic and Republican lawmakers -- including the majority leaders of both houses -- say they want to reauthorize public financing for the next gubernatorial election in 1998.

Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat who has agreed to co-sponsor a public financing bill with Minority Leader John A. Cade, explained: "I don't like elections where the outcome depends on how much money you have, or where who has the most money wins."

Two months ago, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey was nearly elected governor in heavily Democratic Maryland, in part because she opted to use more than 1 million in taxpayers' dollars to finance her campaign.

Mrs. Sauerbrey says her decision to accept the public money gave her long-shot candidacy instant credibility in the Republican primary and made her competitive in the general election despite being heavily outspent by the eventual winner, Democrat Parris N. Glendening.

Like last year's program, the public financing bills to be introduced in both houses would be totally voluntary: Gubernatorial candidates would not have to participate and taxpayers would not have to donate unless they wanted to.

Governor Glendening, whose opponent in 1998 very well could tap into such a fund, said unless every candidate in the race could be required to participate -- something the Supreme Court has said would be unconstitutional -- then public financing will not end the problems caused by increasingly expensive political campaigns.

"I would not put myself in a situation of being in the public financing and have someone come in and be able to expend unlimited personal or collected funds," he said.

Despite that view, the governor said if the legislature and the public want public financing, he would not oppose it.

Whether Mrs. Sauerbrey would have done better if she had financed her campaign the traditional way -- by hitting up lobbyists, corporate bigwigs and anyone else willing to part with hefty contributions -- she says she will never know. She complained that by adhering to the overall spending limits imposed on those who received public funds, she was unable to quickly respond to attacks by Mr. Glendening because she had to save her resources for the last few days of the campaign.

But other observers of the electoral process call Maryland's first effort in publicly financed elections a resounding success.

They say it kept costs under control by imposing a lid on spending by the three candidates who participated; made it harder for special-interest groups to buy influence with big-buck contributions to the three; and provided all three with enough money to make their campaigns competitive.

"We never would have been so successful without public financing," said James Brochin, who managed the underdog campaign of American Joe Miedusiewski, an East Baltimore state senator who joined the gubernatorial race late but finished second -- albeit a distant second -- in the Democratic primary.

Mr. Miedusiewski, Mrs. Sauerbrey and former state Sen. Mary H. Boergers, a Democrat from Montgomery County and the third candidate to accept public funds, agreed the money made it possible for them to go on television long before they might have otherwise.

While each complained of problems in the way the program was administered, they seemed to agree that without that jump start, they might never have gotten their message out.

"When you're in a race like that, obviously you'd like to think you could go out and raise a million, or a million and a half, on your own. But those larger contributors all feel that they need to be with the perceived winner, or perceived front-runner," Mr. Miedusiewski said. "Public funding was like manna from heaven for us."

Maryland is only the latest of a dozen states to publicly finance its gubernatorial elections, but it took 20 years to do so.

The law setting up the program passed in 1974 and was originally to apply to the 1978 elections. Before it was enacted, it was amended to apply not only to the governor's race, but to all 188 Assembly races as well. With financing coming from voluntary add-on donations by taxpayers, there never was enough money to finance so many campaigns.

Implementation was postponed election after election, until 1994, when use of the money was scaled back to only the gubernatorial race and no incumbent was seeking re-election.

The effort to resurrect the program and make it permanent is being led by the self-styled citizens' lobbying organization, Common Cause/Maryland.

Deborah Povich, executive director, says it is essential the program be reinstated this year if it is to have enough time to raise the money needed to make the program meaningful in 1998.

In the House, the bill will be co-sponsored by Majority Leader John A. Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican and lawyer who represented Mrs. Sauerbrey in legal matters involving administration of the public financing law.

About $1.6 million is left in the public financing fund from last year, and the new legislation would use that money -- now earmarked for unspecified "voter education" purposes -- as seed money for the new fund.

In the last election, Ms. Povich said, Mr. Glendening raised and spent more than $5.3 million -- nearly double the record-setting amount Gov. William Donald Schaefer raised and spent eight years earlier.

"There certainly is a public concern that large campaign contributors will get something for their investment in a candidate," she said. "Public funding makes large contributions unnecessary and, in fact, discourages it. It makes small contributions necessary.

"If the next governor's race is going to cost between $5 million and $7 million, the group of potential candidates will be very limited," she said.

Ms. Boergers agreed. "The amount of money that is being spent for statewide and federal races has become obscene," she said. is absolutely out of hand and every election cycle it is getting worse and worse."

But to make the program more enticing, the bill's sponsors have agreed to raise the spending limits for candidates who accept public funds from last year's $2 million ($1 million in the primary, and $1 million more for the general election) to at least $3 million.

Under the old program, before candidates could qualify for public funds, they had to prove they had broad support by raising small donations of $250 or less from individuals. Those contributions had to equal 15 percent of the $1 million available before the candidates could receive $1 in public funds for every $2 raised in that manner.

The new bill would redefine "small contributions" as $500 or less.

Not everyone is so enamored of public financing. Former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, who finished third in the Democratic primary, said public financing was "irrelevant" in last year's race.

"Ellen Sauerbrey spent $1 million and Parris Glendening spent millions. The campaign was decided with less than 6,000 votes. It clearly indicates it was the issue that really dominated the decision-making process."

Mr. Steinberg said other long-shot candidates have done just as well or better without public financing, citing as examples former Gov. Harry R. Hughes and former Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden.

Mr. Glendening also said Mrs. Sauerbrey's success was attributable, at least in part, to a conservative, Republican tide that swept across the nation in November.

The governor also said candidates who accept public funds can legally circumvent spending limits through "independent expenditures" by political party organizations and special-interest groups. Mrs. Sauerbrey, he said, received strong financial support from anti-abortion groups, religious coalitions and gun rights organizations -- none of which was counted toward her spending limit.

"I know we have a problem in this country on campaign financing. There's no question in my mind," Mr. Glendening said.

"But I do not believe public financing solves it. I think it is coming at it from the wrong direction," he said. "But I don't have a clear answer."

1994 PUBLIC DONATIONS

Here's how much taxpayer money was distributed to candidates during the 1994 gubernatorial election:

* DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY

Mary H. Boergers: $110,903

American Joe Miedusiewski: $105,063

* REPUBLICAN PRIMARY

Ellen R. Sauerbrey: $120,685

* GENERAL ELECTION

Ellen R. Sauerbrey: $987,500

* TOTAL DISBURSED

$1,324,151

* BALANCE REMAINING IN FUND

Approximately $1.6 million

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
71°