The chief fund-raiser for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has urged top Democratic donors to prove their loyalty to the lieutenant governor by withholding contributions from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, an unusual request that has escalated tensions between two potential candidates for governor.
Michael G. Bronfein, the Baltimore venture capitalist and former chief executive officer of NeighborCare Pharmacies, sent an e-mail last weekend to Townsend backers after O'Malley began soliciting support for an April fund-raiser at PSINet Stadium.
"As a loyal supporter of KKT, I would ask you not to support this event," wrote Bronfein, who has raised money for O'Malley in the past. "While I do not believe the mayor is going to run for governor, it is important he understands and appreciates your commitment to Kathleen. Saying no at this juncture is the clearest message you can deliver."
The message, sent Saturday, reached O'Malley by Monday morning. Outraged, the mayor promptly turned it into his own fund-raising tool, reading aloud from the e-mail in telephone calls to 15 to 20 supporters, according to his fund-raising consultant. The consultant said O'Malley secured commitments to raise close to $200,000.
Townsend and her chief of staff, Alan Fleischmann, said yesterday that they didn't know about the e-mail before it was sent.
"Michael Bronfein is an independent person, and he makes his own decisions about what kind of mail to send out," Townsend said. "I don't control what people say."
Bronfein, who is Townsend's fund-raising chairman, underwent nasal surgery yesterday and did not respond to requests for comment.
The incident is the clearest evidence yet of the widening gulf between two of the state Democratic Party's top stars, who could be rivals for the gubernatorial nomination this year.
O'Malley has infuriated Townsend by publicly mulling a run, describing a "vacuum" of leadership in the governor's race. Townsend, who has not officially declared her candidacy, has made it clear that her strategy is to eliminate challengers before they surface.
While political observers said they understood Bronfein's motives, the tactic was immediately criticized as a ham-handed effort that could produce the opposite results.
"It's going to get in the media. It's going to stink, and it's going to potentially backlash on Kathleen's campaign," said Donald F. Norris, professor of policy sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a close observer of state politics. "I've never seen anything quite that blatant. ... It's a big gaffe."
"This is not the way you do it," said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, the former mayor and governor. "This will backfire. It's the wrong approach. He was trying to do the right thing. He's a brilliant man, but the game of politics is entirely different than business."
Townsend has collected more than $6 million in an expected bid to succeed term-limited Gov. Parris N. Glendening, and is on pace to shatter Maryland election spending records.
But the more she raises, the less that is available to other candidates. Under state law, donors may give no more than $4,000 to a candidate and $10,000 to all candidates and political action committees during a four-year election cycle.
The Sun reported last month that dozens of prominent individuals and corporations had exceeded the $10,000 limit, with nearly a year to go in the cycle. Some contributors said they would ask for some of the money back to comply with the law.
Among the violators was Bronfein, who had contributed $12,350 to several candidates since 1999, including $3,500 to O'Malley.
"Many Marylanders are near their $10,000 limit and the mayor should not be redirecting money away from Democrats who have elections this year," Bronfein wrote in the e-mail.
Two years into his first term, O'Malley, 39, is extremely popular in the Baltimore area but has yet to tap his full fund-raising potential. A year ago, he raised roughly $800,000 at a similar event at the football stadium, and his supporters believe he can easily top that total this year.
Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Wayne L. Rogers tried to play down the conflict between two of his party's stars.
"I'd chalk it up to the normal competition between fund-raisers," Rogers said. "It's like any competition when there is a limit. Every dollar that is given to one person can't be given to another. It's a zero sum game."
O'Malley has said he will decide sometime after the 90-day General Assembly session ends in April whether he will run for governor. In a poll conducted for The Sun this month, Townsend bested O'Malley, 52 percent to 30 percent, in a hypothetical match-up for governor, though O'Malley out-polled Townsend in the Baltimore metropolitan area, where he is best known.
The Bronfein e-mail sheds light not only on how seriously Townsend backers view an O'Malley candidacy, but on the uncomfortable situation that the mayor's potential bid has created for Democratic contributors.
Past supporters of O'Malley might be reluctant to upset Townsend, the presumed front-runner for the party's nomination. At the same time, a number of leading Democrats privately express doubts about Townsend's ability and track record, and view O'Malley as a potent alternative.
Candidates and their backers often address such concerns subtly and in private. Bronfein's e-mail draws the battle lines in writing.
"Please contact your friends and other supporters and ask them to be part of the group of committed and unwavering supporters of KKT," Bronfein wrote. "This is not the time to hedge your bets or feel pressured."
A State House lobbyist said yesterday that some contributors might well think twice about giving to O'Malley because of Bronfein's stature as a fund-raiser with statewide and national reach.
"Michael is a big player," said the lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Obviously, someone reading the letter might think, 'If I don't do this, Michael might not be there for [my candidate] the next time.'"
O'Malley, for his part, is trying to use the e-mail to his fund-raising advantage.
He began making calls late last week to raise money for the stadium event. He read the e-mail Monday morning, before he was to make another round of calls, according to his fund-raising consultant, Colleen Martin-Lauer.
"He wasn't at all happy about it to say the least, and it moved him to make more calls," Martin-Lauer said yesterday. "He was very aggravated."
O'Malley read from the e-mail and faxed it to a number of supporters who hadn't seen it, Martin-Lauer said. Since the e-mail referred to O'Malley's desire that supporters raise $10,000 for him, she said, the mayor instead asked some people to raise $20,000, and they agreed.
"It made him raise more money, and it made other people, I guess, more willing to give," she said. "It was very helpful."
O'Malley, who declined a request for an interview, has held one small fund-raiser so far this year, at the home of Martin G. Knott Jr. For the second year in a row, he is holding a $35-a-ticket event at Hammerjacks, scheduled for March 24. Townsend, as an elected state official, cannot raise money during the legislative session, which ends April 8.