Power brokers infuse money into Baltimore mayoral campaigns

Who are the donors behind Baltimore's mayoral candidates?

Baltimore's power brokers — some well known, some not — are once again placing their bets on who they want to become the city's next mayor.

Some are betting on everyone.

Donors with ties to real estate developer David S. Cordish have given more than $60,000 to lawyer Elizabeth Embry's mayoral campaign. Those with ties to Baltimore's biggest demolisher of vacant buildings, contractor Pless B. Jones, have ponied up $17,000 for Sheila Dixon. And, for a second time, Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos is backing Carl Stokes' bid for mayor.

But lobbyist Frank Boston III, for instance, has donated to the campaigns of four mayoral candidates: Dixon, Stokes, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and City Councilman Nick J. Mosby.

Seawall Development Co. — which is developing heavily in Remington — has donated to Dixon, Stokes and businessman David L. Warnock.

Ohio-based developers The Woda Group have given to Pugh, Dixon, Mosby and Stokes.

"I like them all," Boston said. "They are my friends and, therefore, I support them. Each of the people that I gave to have faced critical deadlines in terms of fundraising, and I knew I wanted to help them toward their goal."

Political scientist Todd Eberly of St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland said that in the crowded race to become Baltimore's next mayor, some have chosen to "hedge [their] bets and spread a little money out to everyone ... so you haven't offended anyone."

"It rarely ever comes down to a true philosophical belief in government," he said. "They need to be in good with the people in power."

Several major donors contacted by The Baltimore Sun, including Angelos and Jones, did not respond to a request for comment. Cordish also did not respond. Seawall officials declined to comment. A vice president of The Woda Group said officials "believe in supporting the democratic process that supports the broader community."

Individual donors are prohibited from giving more than $6,000 to a single candidate. But they can give to as many candidates as they like after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that aggregate contribution limits are invalid under the First Amendment.

Even so, state lawmakers have attempted to limit the influence one donor can have over a specific campaign.

The General Assembly passed a law in 2013 that prevents one donor from exceeding campaign contribution limits by giving through multiple limited liability corporations. The law only applies if at least 80 percent of the business giving the donation is owned by an entity that has already given a maximum donation.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said recent laws have helped limit such donations but have "not closed the window all the way, and the flies are still buzzing in and out."

"The frustration is, in our democracy, every vote should be equal, but individuals who are well connected, who own these LLCs, are able to give so much money that they do have a bigger voice," she said.

Mayoral candidates are raising money at a pace to rival historic levels in past elections. While most of the campaigns have been trumpeting their numbers of small-dollar donors, finance records show wealthy individuals still play an outsized role.

Warnock leads early campaign financing efforts with $927,000 on hand — thanks, in part, to a nearly $1 million loan he made to his campaign. Sixteen individual donors gave him $6,000 — the maximum contribution allowed by a person under state law. Some of his biggest donations come from Texas and California.

Pugh reported $664,000 available to spend — with about one-third of that ($222,000) coming from just 37 donors. She received $12,000 from Daniel and Stephanie Hirschfeld of Genesis Rehab Services, $6,000 from Merrill Lynch and $6,000 from state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Francis X. Kelly, a former state senator from Baltimore County and a regent for the University System of Maryland, decided this election cycle to pick just one candidate for mayor to put his money on: Pugh. He gave her the maximum $6,000.

"I just know how qualified she is. She is very reliable. She is very smart. She is understated," Kelly said. "When you need her and you make a call, she returns it."

Embry reported $393,000 on hand. That includes $210,000 raised from just 35 donors — including $24,000 from four members of the family of real estate developer John A. Luetkemeyer.

Cordish, the owner of Maryland Live Casino, did not donate individually to Embry, though 17 donors with ties to the Cordish family and related businesses gave her more than $60,000. Maryland law made it illegal in 2012 for a casino owner to donate to political campaigns. The prohibition applies only to a person who owns at least 5 percent of the casino.

In an email to supporters, Embry wrote that she has "out-raised all my opponents during the 68 days since I announced, and our campaign now has more cash-on-hand than the current front runner."

More than 56 percent of her campaign contributions were less than $100, she said.

"We have real momentum in fundraising and true strength in our grassroots support," she wrote. "It is clear that Baltimore wants change and that it is time for a new generation of leaders. We need your involvement and your energy to break the old politics."

Dixon reported $320,000 on hand, including six donations of $6,000. Jones and his son gave her a combined $17,000, including donations from their companies, while leaders of contracting firm M. Luis Construction gave her $12,000. Heating and plumbing contractor Robert E. Harrington gave her nearly $10,000 from himself and his company.

Mosby's campaign finance filing stated he has $203,000 available to spend, including five donations of $6,000. Jennifer and Michael Klein of Klein Enterprises, a real estate development firm, gave him a combined $12,000.

Stokes reported $155,000 on hand, including one donation of $6,000. Besides Angelos — who gave him $5,000 — some of his strongest support came from Jackson Haden of the Baltimore Recycling Center, which donated $8,000.

During the last city campaign in 2011, Angelos, his lawyers and business entities gave about $50,000 to Stokes.

Herb Smith, political science professor at McDaniel College, said spending money during the political season is a necessity for many who do business with city government.

"The city often has been a pay-to-play political system, and if you hit the combination right, you're good for four years," he said. "You either choose wisely or you spread it around."

Still, Smith cautioned, money isn't everything when it comes to winning a race in Baltimore. For instance, Marilyn J. Mosby, Baltimore's state's attorney, ousted an incumbent prosecutor in 2014 even though she was trailing in fundraising.

The right platform, enough charisma and a dedicated campaign team can overcome a challenger with a bigger war chest, he said.

"That's how you defeat money," Smith said. "You can organize a city and win a divided campaign."

Baltimore Sun reporter Natalie Sherman contributed to this article.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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