Republican Christopher J. Merdon's private, invitation-only fundraiser Saturday night at the 160-acre North Laurel estate of parking lot magnate and developer Kingdon Gould Jr. might have been more glamorous than most, but it represents a trend in this year's race for Howard County executive.
Instead of more traditional catering hall fundraisers geared to the $100-a-ticket crowd like the one outgoing county executive and state Senate candidate James N. Robey held recently at Turf Valley Resort, Merdon and Democrat Ken Ulman - the two front-running candidates for executive - are concentrating more on raising money at smaller, often private events at people's homes.
Merdon, who is the Howard County Council chairman, raised $142,000 at the Gould event, which featured an appearance by Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. That put his fundraising well over the $300,000 mark, which is more than any other executive candidate has raised for a campaign in previous years.
"Home parties are more intimate and often in a more beautiful setting. There is a cost savings to having the events at a private home," said Merdon, who also has had public events such as his free family picnic May 13 at Cedar Lane Park.
The sunset gathering at Overlook, the Gould estate since 1952, was beautiful.
After taking a long driveway past a huge white Georgian mansion, more than 200 guests parked in a pasture and walked back along a farm fence past a grazing horse.
They followed a grassy path marked by tiny candles in white paper bags to a stone patio surrounding the oval swimming pool where Ehrlich and Merdon spoke.
Ulman, too, has had numerous smaller gatherings, including his 32nd birthday celebration last month at a Columbia Lakefront restaurant - similar to the 35th birthday party Merdon combined with fundraising at an Ellicott City restaurant this year.
"We do a number of different things," Ulman said, including a summer picnic the campaign is planning.
He added: "We're feeling pretty good about where we are financially. We will absolutely have the resources necessary to get our message out." He refused to give specific numbers.
In January, Ulman reported raising $162,000 in the previous year, compared to Merdon's $173,658. Merdon had $222,730 on hand, however, compared to Ulman's $196,124.
"Renting out a catering hall is expensive. You try to stay focused on raising money rather than spending it," Ulman said.
The public won't get a peek at who is donating all the cash until August, when the next round of campaign finance disclosure reports are filed.
That's a problem, according to Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonprofit public interest watchdog group.
Private fundraisers aren't illegal, she said, but they serve to conceal from the public "information the public has a right to know." The time gap between the January and August filings is too long, she said.
"In the best of all possible worlds, they would have contributions posted on their Web sites so the public can see," Walton said.
Harry M. Dunbar, another Democrat running for county executive, said he has no problem with private fundraisers, but he does object to large contributions from developers like Gould, Harry "Chip" Lundy and Donald R. Reuwer, who also attended Merdon's event.
"Developers are trying to buy the election," Dunbar said.
Ulman doesn't believe a close association with President Bush and Ehrlich will do Merdon much good in majority-Democratic Howard County.
"The George Bush circle of wealthy Republican donors is a strong political force in Maryland," Ulman said. "I understand Chris has the support of the George Bush, Bob Ehrlich Republican machine, and that's where he's raising money. We are doing very well."
Merdon advertised the Ehrlich visit and was appreciative for his support.
"Governor Ehrlich is extremely popular in Howard County. I am grateful that the governor is coming to Howard County to show his support of my candidacy," Merdon said in a news release about the event.
Merdon told his supporters Saturday that his negative poll ratings are just 3 percent in the county and with his two terms as a councilman and his jobs in private business, "I have the executive experience to run Howard County."
Despite that, he said, "I'm probably not going to get the Baltimore Sun's endorsement."
That's because "the script written is that Republicans are bad guys," he said. Merdon noted that he's been elected twice from a district with a majority of registered Democrats, and he considers himself a bipartisan, issues-driven candidate.
Ehrlich called Howard a "classic swing county" that's important to his re-election campaign for governor, and he praised Merdon as the kind of "young talent" the Republican Party needs to be successful in Maryland.
"There is a negative national environment" for Republicans, Ehrlich noted, "but a very positive local atmosphere."
Gould, a descendant of Jay Gould, the 19th-century New York financier, was appointed ambassador to Luxembourg in 1969 by President Richard M. Nixon.
He said Merdon is "a competent person who has demonstrated he's electable."
Like many developers, Gould has given money to candidates from both parties. In 1994, he donated $10,000 to Democrat Parris N. Glendening's legal defense fund to help fend off a challenge to his close election victory over Republican Ellen Sauerbrey. Caleb Gould, his son, recently attended Robey's event.