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Can public campaign financing improve government? Baltimore County executive, activists start campaign to convince voters.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. speaks Tuesday at an event launching the “Yes for A!” campaign, which urges voters to approve a ballot measure that would allow public financing for local political campaigns.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. speaks Tuesday at an event launching the “Yes for A!” campaign, which urges voters to approve a ballot measure that would allow public financing for local political campaigns. (Alison Knezevich)

Saying it’s time to reduce the influence of big money on Baltimore County politics, activists this week are kicking off an effort to convince voters to approve public financing for local campaigns.

Supporters of a charter amendment appeared outside the Towson courthouse on Tuesday with County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. to launch the “Yes for A!” campaign.

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Olszewski recalled the history of Republican Spiro Agnew, who took kickbacks from contractors when he served as Baltimore County executive from 1962 to 1966 and later as governor and U.S. vice president. When the corruption was uncovered, he resigned in 1973 from the vice presidency.

“Today, we are still fighting to remove that stain from our history by tackling the influence of big money and special interests on local politics,” said Olszewski, who attended the event with leaders of Common Cause Maryland and Progressive Maryland.

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Last year, a bill to put public campaign financing on the ballot was the Democratic county executive’s first major legislative initiative. It’s now up to voters whether to approve the charter amendment in November.

If they do, the county would create a “citizen’s election fund” that candidates for the Baltimore County Council and county executive would have the option to use starting in 2026.

The details of the program, including the specific funding source, would be worked out later if voters approve the charter amendment. Such systems typically encourage small donations and give matching public funds to candidates — who in turn pledge to turn down large contributions.

County officials last year estimated the program would cost about $4.3 million per election cycle.

Critics of public financing object to spending taxpayer money on political campaigns.

The idea of public financing is to limit the influence of special interests on campaigns, and supporters say it would encourage a wider variety of people to run for office.

“Over time, we’ll begin to see more diverse candidates running more competitive races,” Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said in an interview.

Advocates say the cost of campaigning can discourage people from running for local office. Olszewski raised well over $2 million in his 2018 bid for the county’s top job.

They also hope public financing would elevate the voices of people who aren’t wealthy.

“Developers always get heard because a lot of campaigns are funded largely or substantially by developers,” said Pikesville activist Sheldon Laskin, who in 2018 unsuccessfully challenged Democratic state Sen. Bobby Zirkin in the primary.

With the coronavirus pandemic making it hard to do in-person events, the campaign in support of Question A will rely heavily on digital outreach, such as a virtual kickoff Wednesday night on Facebook, featuring U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. John Sarbanes, both Democrats.

State legislation approved in 2013 enabled Maryland counties to set up public campaign financing for local races. Montgomery County became the first to utilize it, in the 2018 election. Prince George’s County plans to do so in 2026.

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In Howard County, voters in 2016 passed the measure by about 53%. The program is set to start in 2022.

The idea received more support in Baltimore City in 2018, when 75% of voters supported a public financing ballot measure. It’s expected to go into effect in time for the 2024 election cycle.

In Maryland, a donor can give up to $6,000 to a single candidate in an election cycle. Owen Silverman Andrews, co-chair of the Baltimore Green Party — among the groups that supported the measure in the city — said working-class people can’t afford that “enormous” amount, thus giving corporate interests, such as developers, disproportionate sway.

Last year, some Baltimore County Council members pushed back against the idea that their donors influence their decisions. But the legislation still received bipartisan support on the council, which approved it by a vote of 5-2. Councilmen Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, and Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, voted against it.

At the time, Crandell said he had a philosophical objection to spending taxpayer money on campaigns. And Jones questioned why public funds should be spent on the program when the community has needs like schools and roads.

As Baltimore County and other local governments face declining revenues in the pandemic, supporters want to convince voters the campaign finance fund is worth the money.

“This is another investment in our democracy,” said Samay Kindra, an Owings Mills resident who chairs the ballot committee for the Question A campaign. “This is making sure our democracy is more accountable, that it really is representing the people that are the constituents of these representatives.”

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