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Elections

PACs spending hundreds of thousands in effort to oust Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger

Progressive political action committees are spending heavily in an effort to oust longtime Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger in next week’s election.

One group, the Maryland Justice & Public Safety PAC, has reported more than $583,000 in outstanding bills accrued since June, campaign finance reports show. Those bills were for expenses including a series of mailers and streaming TV and Facebook ads attacking Shellenberger and supporting his opponent in the Democratic primary, Robbie Leonard.

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The Maryland super PAC is a state affiliate of a national political action committee that is funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros and aims to reform the criminal justice system by electing progressive local prosecutors across the country. Leonard supports the legalization of marijuana and says low-level crimes should be diverted out of the criminal justice system.

Super PACs in Maryland can accept unlimited contributions and are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns. They must disclose expenditures of $10,000 or more within 48 hours. The Maryland Justice & Public Safety PAC has only spent money on the Leonard-Shellenberger race, according to state campaign finance records.

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Another spending committee, affiliated with the progressive Working Families Party, also has reported expenses to support Leonard. That group, listed in state records as “WFP National Pac — Non-Contribution Account,” has reported spending that includes $15,540 for phone banking and $89,820 for mailing expenses.

Shellenberger was first elected in 2006 and never faced a primary challenge before this race.

The influx of outside money could help Leonard quickly increase his name recognition, said Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore.

“A lot of challengers in races like this have very little name recognition,” he said. “Already there’s question marks about whether people are paying attention to the primaries at all, let alone this race. So raising name recognition … could be very beneficial [for Leonard], especially in a low-visibility race.”

It may also indicate a competitive election, Hartley said.

“If the challenger is attracting that kind of outside money, then it means that some people think there’s a chance for him to win,” Hartley said. “It might be a tighter race than people think.”

The outside spending far exceeds the campaign expenditures reported by either candidate over the past six months. The most recently available state finance reports cover the period through July 3. Shellenberger reported about $68,000 in campaign spending since mid-January; Leonard, about $46,000.

The Maryland Justice & Public Safety PAC was established June 14 and has not listed any contributors in disclosure reports.

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It is associated with federal Justice & Public Safety PAC. That entity is funded by Soros, Soros Fund Management, and Soros’ Democracy PAC, said Anna Massoglia, a researcher with OpenSecrets, which tracks campaign spending.

Asked for comment about its interest in the Baltimore County race, the Maryland Justice & Public Safety PAC issued a statement through the communications firm BerlinRosen.

“We are supporting Robbie Leonard because his record and platform make him the candidate best able to make Baltimore County safer and more just for all of its residents,” Maryland Justice & Public Safety PAC President Whitney Tymas said in the statement.

On its website, the national Justice & Public Safety PAC says it’s helped win races in 14 states over the past six years.

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“Prosecutors have outsize power and largely unchecked authority in the criminal justice system — from charging nonviolent drug offenders with felonies to seeking the death penalty disproportionately based on the race of the victim and defendant,” the group says.

Shellenberger has criticized the spending as outsiders trying to influence a local race.

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“It seems to me that a billionaire who has no connection to Baltimore County should not be dictating who the state’s attorney is in Baltimore County,” he said, referring to Soros. “This person has a reputation for supporting progressive prosecutors around the country, and I don’t think that’s what we need or want here in Baltimore County.”

Leonard said he is grateful for the support of groups whose values align with his.

“I appreciate the help where I can get it,” Leonard said. “I’m a challenger taking on a 16-year incumbent, where the public is learning more and more every day about his record.”

Two Republicans, Deborah Hill and James A. Haynes, also are running in the primary election for state’s attorney.

Baltimore Sun reporter Darcy Costello contributed to this article.


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