Buying influence?

Nine months ago, Bryan P. Sears of the Towson Times broke an eyebrow-raising story: Two Baltimore County development attorneys — one the son of term-limited County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and the other one of Mr. Smith's former law clerks — had selected candidates to back in three separate County Council races and had held high-dollar fundraisers for them. Now, with the Democratic primary less than a week away, it's worth revisiting that report to see exactly how much impact the efforts of Michael Paul Smith and David Gildea have had on what is shaping up to be the council's biggest makeover in nearly two decades.

The three candidates the attorneys backed are Tom Quirk, who is running in the 1st District, centered around Catonsville; Gordon Harden, running in the 5th District, which stretches from Towson to Perry Hall; and Cathy Bevins, running in the 6th District, which includes Essex and Middle River. All three are Democrats, and all three have raised enough money to run well financed campaigns. Among the 38 people running for council this year, Mr. Quirk has raised the fourth most money ($73,674), and Ms. Bevins and Mr. Harden came in 10th ($58,670) and 11th ($57,859).

It's difficult to say with certainty how much of that fundraising success can be attributed to the efforts of Messrs. Gildea and Smith, but state campaign finance reports suggest that all three owe at least 40 percent of their take to the two attorneys.

Their fundraiser for Ms. Bevins came at the end of October 2009, when she recorded a string of $1,000-plus contributions from the limited liability corporations developers use to run their projects. In that one day, she recorded checks for $25,700, about 44 percent of the money she raised for her race. Mr. Quirk's fundraiser came next, in mid-November. He recorded a similar banner day, with four-figure contributions from some of the same entities, totaling $34,726, or about 47 percent of his total. A few days later, Mr. Harden logged $34,075 at a similar event, a whopping 59 percent of all the money he raised for the race.

And that just counts the checks the candidates recorded on the actual days of their fundraisers. In each case, thousands more in contributions from developers, development attorneys (or, in two cases, the wife of a development attorney) were logged in the days just before or after the events. And all three got $1,500 contributions from Friends of Jim Smith, the county executive's campaign account.

It is by no means unusual for candidates for local office in Baltimore County to be bankrolled by development interests. Land use decisions are the most important power councilmen hold, and the way the system works, each individual member has near absolute control of rezoning in his or her district. But the scope of this effort is out of the ordinary. If any of these three candidates is elected, it's hard to see how Messrs. Smith and Gildea wouldn't have an easier time bending their ears than ordinary constituents would.

This isn't to say that the other candidates running for those council seats are necessarily free of special interest money. Two candidates running against the Smith/Gildea trio actually out-raised them: Bill Paulshock in the 5th District and Todd Schuler in the 6th, and both of them got significant backing from unions, political action committees, trade groups and (surprise!) developers, all of which may well have agendas of their own.

Ultimately, the only way to ensure fundraising doesn't create at least the appearance that special interests are trying to buy influence is to establish public financing of campaigns. But that's no help to voters who, in the next week will begin the process of a historic turnover on the County Council. All they can do now is to find out who is bankrolling the candidates seeking to represent them — the information is all available in the campaign finance section of — and vote accordingly.

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