Four years ago, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey was a long-shot candidate for governor who pumped up her chances by taking advantage of Maryland's public campaign financing system. Money from the fund helped her knock off the front-runner in the GOP primary -- and nearly put her in the governor's office.
This year, the tables are turned.
A well-financed Sauerbrey is out front and declining the money. But Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is expected to use the public financing program to bolster his dark-horse bid and try to knock Sauerbrey out of the Republican primary in September.
Ecker said that "in all probability" he would use the program -- which offers up to $750,000 in matching funds to candidates for governor who agree to limit their spending in the primary to about $1.5 million.
Geyer Wise, Ecker's campaign manager, said she believes he has met the criteria to qualify, having raised at least $150,000 in private contributions of $250 or less.
Ecker, who has raised about $300,000, lags far behind the better-known Sauerbrey in private fund raising, and the public money would offer his campaign a much needed boost.
"It'd be very helpful, certainly with advertising -- and by that I mean TV and radio spots -- and direct mail," Ecker said.
Public campaign financing was passed as an election reform 24 years ago to offer an alternative to special interests steering huge amounts of money to candidates.
Embraced in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the state's Fair Campaign Financing Act was intended to diminish the influence of lobbyists and other large contributors. Only about a dozen states have publicly financed gubernatorial campaigns.
First used in '94
While the law has been on the books since 1974, implementation was delayed 20 years, election after election, by incumbent Democrats who feared it would give their opponents an advantage.
The fund was first used in the 1994 governor's race, when three candidates -- Sauerbrey and two Democrats -- spent about $1.3 million from it. They and the fund's good-government proponents pronounced it a success.
Nearly $2.3 million is available for this year's primary and general elections -- most of it from money collected through a taxpayer checkoff in the 1970s and the interest earned on it since then.
Half of that -- about $1.14 million this year -- is available to candidates in the primary; the other half is for the general election.
To qualify this year, candidates need to raise about $150,000 from private citizens in contributions of $250 or less. For the primary election, that money must be raised between March 1, 1997 and July 16, 1998, the deadline for requesting public funds for the primary.
For every dollar raised privately, candidates qualify for up to a dollar in matching funds from the state, depending on how much of the $1.14 million is available. In 1994, it took $2 in private contributions to qualify for each $1 match.
Under a complex, population-based formula, participating candidates agree to a spending ceiling of about $1.5 million for the primary and again for the general election, an increase from the $1 million limits in 1994.
Tapping into such a pot might seem attractive to office-seekers -- but other than Ecker, only one other candidate for governor is interested in using public financing.
Dr. Terry A. McGuire, a Prince George's County Democrat and a very long shot in the race, would like to participate, though his campaign has not yet decided.
McGuire's biggest problem, however, may be raising the $150,000 needed to qualify for the matching funds.
"From the beginning, this has been a shoe-leather campaign on a shoestring budget," McGuire said. "If we elect to take that route, then we certainly will find out if we can raise that money."
Other Democratic candidates for governor -- incumbent Parris N. Glendening, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann and
Montgomery County businessman Raymond F. Schoenke Jr. -- are declining the public money, with all but the Rehrmann camp citing the $1.5 million spending cap as the reason. In 1994, Glendening set a record by raising and spending $5.2 million for the governor's race.
While Sauerbrey has conceded the importance of public financing to her last campaign, Carol L. Hirschburg, a campaign spokeswoman, explained that her candidate, too, is put off this year by the spending cap.
"If we feel we need to spend more than that before the end of the primary, we need the flexibility to do it," Hirschburg said.
Hirschburg also maintains that Sauerbrey's success over Helen Delich Bentley in the 1994 GOP primary was due to more than money.
"We had an incredibly powerful message," Hirschburg said, referring to Sauerbrey's proposed 24 percent income tax cut. "And we had an extremely strong, statewide grass-roots organization. That's why we could do it with so little money.
"To win, Chuck would have to have money, build an organization, have a powerful message and convince a huge majority of Republicans that he's the better candidate," she said.
In assessing the differences between Sauerbrey's success in the 1994 primary and Ecker's chances this year, Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, a Bethesda polling firm, agreed.
"Ecker's most difficult problem is less money [than it is] being too moderate for grass-roots Republicans, who are much more conservative and vote in disproportionately high numbers in primaries," Haller said.
Nevertheless, Wise is counting on party moderates on Election Day and said any infusion of cash from public financing would help.
"Looking around the country, 1998 is vastly different than 1994," she said. "A lot of these right-wing candidates have lost, and there's more of an awareness that there's room out there for moderate Republican candidates like Chuck Ecker.
"If we can use our funds to be very targeted in who we're trying to get to the polls, yes, the money's useful," she said. "At that point, every cent you have is helpful."
Program's future in doubt
If Ecker is successful -- and perhaps even if he's not -- the funds he and McGuire may draw from the state's dwindling campaign-financing account could force the next General Assembly to take up the issue of whether to continue the program.
Little money for the fund has come in since the taxpayer checkoff was reinstituted in 1995. Although the legislature increased the voluntary contribution amount on state income tax forms from $1 in the 1970s to a maximum of $500, taxpayers this year earmarked only about $54,000.
It is possible that after this fall's elections, the account will be depleted to the point that it would be virtually meaningless for the 2002 governor's race unless the General Assembly finds another source of funding.
The refusal of many candidates to take part in the program because of the spending cap also raises a policy question -- although the head of one campaign watchdog group hopes the legislature will not revisit that issue.
"The whole idea [of the cap] was to bring down the cost of campaigns," said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "I absolutely would hate to see the cap raised, because it really then seems like you're taking a step backwards."
Pub Date: 5/17/98