For the third election in a row, a Baltimore County executive has the potential to play kingmaker in elections for other local offices, thanks both to what has been one of the most gaping loopholes in campaign finance law and the inability of the Republican Party to put up a credible candidate in what was once the key jurisdiction in its efforts at state-wide competitiveness. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has amassed at least $123,000 in an election slate he controls, all of which he can transfer to other slate members, of which there is presently only one: his favored candidate in a contested County Council primary.
The situation echoes former County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s use of his slate to benefit his preferred candidates in 2006 and 2010, enabling him to wield arguably more influence than any other individual in the outcome of races in Baltimore County in those years. In 2006, he funneled $435,000 to Scott Shellenberger in his successful bid to become state's attorney, and in 2010, when Mr. Smith wasn't on the ballot, he transferred nearly $170,000 to other candidates, including $64,000 to his former aide, Cathy Bevins, in her victorious run for County Council.
Mr. Smith's use of his slate was so egregious that it prompted the General Assembly to address it in campaign finance legislation that was enacted in 2013. The reforms are fairly modest: Members of a slate have to actually be running for office (which Mr. Smith wasn't in 2010), and slates can only transfer $24,000 to any individual campaign. That still allows someone who controls a slate to funnel more money to a particular candidate than could be achieved by any other means, but it's a start. Unfortunately, it doesn't affect Mr. Kamenetz because it won't go into effect until the next election cycle.
What makes matters worse is that the slate is, at least as of the last campaign finance report, nothing more than a joint effort between Mr. Kamenetz and the executives of a single development company with a huge footprint in Baltimore County. Mr. Kamenetz has transferred just over $100,000 from his individual campaign fund to the slate, and individuals or companies associated with Caves Valley Partners had given $23,000 as of the end of last year. (Individuals or entities listing the same addresses as the donors to the slate have also given $18,000 directly to Mr. Kamenetz's campaign account during the current election cycle.) When asked about all this by Sun reporter Alison Knezevich, Mr. Kamenetz declined to comment, and his spokesman, Don Mohler, made the laughable remark that the county executive has to "be interacting and having relationships with every constituent," as if developers had been a historically marginalized group in Baltimore County.
Why is Mr. Kamenetz doing this? He has his reasons, no doubt, for supporting Jon Herbst's challenge to Councilwoman Vicki Almond, but the short answer is that he's doing it because he can. As of January, he had just over $1 million in his campaign account, and his only challenger with anything resembling a political resume from either party is a former chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee who held that post for less than a year before his fellow members forced him out.
It's not likely that Mr. Kamenetz is sweating this election any more than Mr. Smith did in 2006, when he faced only token GOP opposition. Baltimore County was once a legitimate swing jurisdiction in state politics. It nearly made up Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s entire margin of victory in 2002, and it went for Republican Ellen Sauerbrey twice over Gov. Parris N. Glendening, in 1994 and 1998. But the fact that this will be the third election in a row in which the GOP nominates someone for executive who has no experience in elected office demonstrates the extent to which that is no longer the case.
Until the Republican Party finds a candidate with strong credentials, name recognition and fund-raising ability, we're going to keep seeing Democratic Baltimore County executives tipping the scales in other local races; even under the reforms that take effect next year, Mr. Kamenetz and his successors will have the theoretical and practical ability to funnel more money to more candidates than anyone else in the county. And that's a problem. We elect county executives to head one branch of government, not two.
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