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The dollar off to an early lead in race to trivialize politics


THE EMOTIONAL highlight of Martin O'Malley's great big fund-raiser the other night was Tommy D'Alesandro talking arithmetic. It certainly wasn't O'Malley talking politics. D'Alesandro, the former mayor, told the big crowd at M&T; Bank Stadium that the O'Malley tribute had raised $2 million. Everybody cheered the news quite loudly. Better, they should have cringed.

We are more than a year from electing a governor, and already the money is obscene. O'Malley, who has not yet officially announced his candidacy, has now raised about $3 million. Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, who has not officially announced his candidacy, has raised about $1.5 million. And Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, who has not stopped campaigning since the moment he got the job three years ago, has raised about $5 million.

On the same day O'Malley took in $2 million, Ehrlich hosted a golf outing at the Elkridge Club. Players wishing to get close enough to the governor to be remembered fondly when state contracts are doled out forked over $1,000 apiece. The event raised a reported $100,000. In today's climate, a pittance. But, for a bunch of guys hitting golf balls, this gives entirely new meaning to the term "greens."

With each excessive dollar raised by political candidates, the voice of democracy - that is, the voice of ideas - gets crowded out by the clang of the cash register. The clammy hand, reaching for the dollar, becomes the modern symbol of politics, in ways never previously imagined.

Political insiders expect Ehrlich will raise $20 million to get himself re-elected. In the race to fill the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by the retiring Paul Sarbanes, candidates from both parties are expected to raise a combined $30 million. And there, last week at the O'Malley gathering, stood Tommy D'Alesandro, announcing $2 million in one night. But D'Alesandro was also a reminder of a time when big dollars meant handing out a few bucks in Election Day walk-around money to make certain everybody voted (at least once).

The big crowd roared happily at the announcement of the $2 million. These are not naive people. They understand that money's the mother's milk of campaigning. Without it, you can't buy television advertising in the crunch days. In their heart of hearts, though, they surely understand it's also a source of cynicism in which the shorthand of the TV spot short-circuits actual ideas and the incessant 30-second commercial substitutes for the one-time 60-minute debate.

For all those voters who get their news strictly from TV, this becomes a serious problem. Several years ago, a combined university study of TV news at 122 stations in the top 50 U.S. markets said that only 37 percent of 4,850 local newscasts included campaign coverage.

But, during 72 percent of those broadcasts, at least one political commercial was aired. On average, four ads ran for every election story - meaning, for all those voters who get their news strictly from TV, they were four times as likely to hear political propagandizing as they were to hear legitimate coverage of such claims.

And that's where the bulk over those millions of dollars in campaign contributions is heading.

When O'Malley talked to the big crowd last week, he never mentioned money. That's considered bad form for a candidate. He talked about progress. Actually, he didn't so much talk as read. This is a guy who can be uncommonly good delivering a speech. But, on this night, he left more than a few political insiders wondering if he'd left home without his emotions.

He seemed to phone it in. His best line was about Maryland "threatened by the icy, minimalist indifference by those who say to a free, to a diverse and to a courageous people, 'This far can you go, and no further.'"

The line had particular resonance in a week in which the Ehrlich administration began sending out letters to thousands of low-income legal immigrants, informing them that their children will lose health care benefits next month as the governor's folks eliminate a $7 million Medicaid program for children and pregnant women.

Let's see: cut $7 million in medical assistance, but spend $20 million on political campaigns? That can't be good for anybody.

But, at his fund-raiser, O'Malley never got closer to it than the line about "icy, minimalist indifference." When he finished his speech, he stepped down from the podium to give TV interviews while most of the crowd drifted homeward. Maybe he heard some of the grumbling around him, and maybe he didn't.

The consensus, among several political professionals, was that this crowd showed up wanting "a little red meat." They wanted O'Malley to talk about state problems, and the people creating (or ignoring) them. Instead, he rattled off some old lines about improvement in the city under his leadership.

Maybe he was saving it for later - when he and the rest of Maryland's candidates start spending all that money they're so busy collecting now, more than a year before things get really rough.

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