Inaugural gala earns $400,000 for surging state Republicans


WASHINGTON - Donning tuxedos and evening gowns, Maryland Republicans flocked to Washington last night for an inaugural gala in the shadow of the White House that raised $400,000 for the resurgent state party.

State GOP Chairman John M. Kane said the event was among the most profitable fund-raisers for party operations, capitalizing on tomorrow's inauguration of President Bush and the close ties of several Marylanders to the White House.

Doro Bush Koch, sister of the president and a Montgomery County resident, was an honorary guest, thanking Marylanders for their work on her brother's campaign.

"We're creeping up. Someday we may win the state of Maryland," Koch said. "We did so much better than we did in 2000."

Ken Mehlman, a Baltimore County native and Bush campaign manager who will be installed as chairman of the Republican National Committee today, said Maryland figures strongly in the national party's plans.

"Re-electing Bob Ehrlich is an incredibly important part of our mission," Mehlman said. "He is fighting entrenched interests that oppose progress, that oppose the public good of the people of Maryland."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. attended the gala at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters, as did Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and former Democratic Gov. Marvin Mandel.

Several Ehrlich Cabinet secretaries were also present.

Some of the guests were delayed by a police standoff a few blocks away involving a man who was threatening to blow up his van unless he regained custody of his child. The man eventually surrendered to police.

Arriving at the chamber headquarters after a meeting of state party chairmen with the president, Kane described Bush as "exuberant" and said, "We heard a lot of the tenor of his inaugural speech."

"He's not looking for small victories," Kane said, referring to Social Security reform and other initiatives that may take decades to reach fruition.

Kane said 1,000 tickets were sold for last night's gala, the proceeds of which will be used in part on voter registration efforts. Tickets ranged from $300 for individuals to $1,250 for VIPs and "Sponsorships" of $10,000 and $20,000.

Gala sponsors were Associated Builders and Contractors, DavCo Restaurants Inc., E. Stewart Mitchell Asphalt, Mr. and Mrs. Kingdon Gould, Mr. and Mrs. Barton Mitchell, Mr. and Mrs. Michael King, Redgate III LLC. and Safeway.

Maryland's campaign finance limits of $4,000 do not apply to political parties when the donations are used for party administrative expenses. Such soft-money donations can be used by parties for staff salaries, office overhead and other expenses.

"The administrative dollars are very useful to parties, because you can use it for so many things under federal and state law," said Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.

White said he was undaunted by the GOP's $400,000 take.

"It's one thing to fund-raise. It's another thing to figure out what you are going to do with your money," White said. "The Republicans have shown under Bob Ehrlich and John Kane that they are really good at spending it, but not getting much on their return."

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, the watchdog group, says his organization has found that some Maryland corporations give large administrative donations to both state parties.

"It's really like a high-stakes poker game," Browning said. "When they are giving to both, it is not an expression of political philosophy; it is just a way to get phone calls returned."

"The sponsorship may be $20,000, but being able to walk into an office in Annapolis and get a seat at the table is priceless," he said.

Among the companies that have given at least $10,000 to each party in the past year are Comcast, Constellation Energy, and businesses owned by Montgomery County developer and racetrack owner William Rickman Jr., Browning said.

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