Money is the mother’s milk of politics: having it doesn’t guarantee victory, but not having it almost always guarantees defeat.
Campaign money also has become a battleground in this year’s governor’s race. In November, Democratic candidate Doug Gansler invited his chief rival, Anthony Brown, to reject so-called “dark money” spending during the primary election.
Banning such “outside spending” by PACs, unions and anyone except the candidate’s own campaigns was a self-serving Gansler ploy masquerading as good government. Third-party spending on ads and voter turnout benefits Brown, because most third-party groups (unions, PACs, incumbents, etc.) are in his camp. Conversely, limiting campaign spending to the candidate’s war chests benefits Gansler, who’s raised more than Brown. So Brown declined Gansler’s invitation.
But the most interesting aspect of Gansler’s good government trap was his proposed penalty: any candidate who violates the pledge must make a campaign donation to a charity.
Turns out that it’s illegal in Maryland for a candidate to direct a contribution to a charity or nonprofit. Why? Because that’s how elected officials, particularly in P.G. county, “laundered” unsavory campaign donations. Instead of taking money from developers or other special interests that might look bad on the candidate’s financial report, candidates directed the money to charities in their districts and then took credit for it. That’s why it’s now illegal.
The latest money battle involves another fundraising ban, a 1997 law prohibiting fundraising during the General Assembly’s 90-day session (mid-January to mid-April). The ban applies to the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and all 188 members of the legislature.
It’s a curious law unless you understand its origins. If lobbyists and special interests want to legally bribe state lawmakers with campaign contributions, why ban such corruption only during the 90-day session while allowing it the rest of the year?
Answer: Because the 90-day session ban wasn’t demanded by the lawmakers, it was demanded by the State House lobbyists! That’s right, in 1997 the lobbyists went to the presiding officers begging for relief from legislators who were preying on them during the session.
For instance, if a lobbyist’s bill was up for an afternoon committee vote, the committee chairman or key members would sometimes hold a sudden “fundraising breakfast” to which the lobbyist, with check in hand, was invited. Some legislators didn’t even bother with the breakfast subterfuge — just give me the check. The lobbyists were getting eaten alive. That’s why it’s now illegal.
The 90-day session ban wasn’t problematic until this election because, except for ending same-day session extortion, it didn’t have much effect. State lawmakers still had plenty of time to shake down the special interests before and after the session. But moving Maryland’s primary election (the most important election in one-party Maryland) from September to June 24 made the ban a political battlefield.
Once the session adjourns in mid-April, only a two-month primary campaign remains. So, money for media ad buys, direct mail and election day mobilization must be on hand early. Gubernatorial tickets that can’t fundraise during the session are at a huge disadvantage. For instance, neither Doug Gansler (attorney general) nor his running mate Jolene Ivey (delegate) can fundraise during the session.
Likewise, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is banned. But how about his running mate, Ken Ulman? If Ulman was running for re-election as Howard County executive he wouldn’t be covered by the ban, but shouldn’t he be covered now that he’s Brown’s ticket mate?
No, says the state elections administrator, Linda Lamone. Even though state law unifies the candidates into a single ticket (when you vote for governor you automatically vote for his/her running mate) and even though whatever Ulman raises independently during the session can and will be transferred into the Brown/Ulman joint account, the state elections board views them as separate entities for fundraising purposes so long as Ulman and Brown “don’t coordinate their fundraising during the 90 day session.” Huh?
Didn’t the legislature just outlaw campaign contributions by LLCs, partnerships and other “separate entities” under single control because donors were using them to circumvent campaign contribution limits? Yet, the “separate entities” fiction is OK to circumvent the 90-day session ban?
Here’s the tip-off: Brown “has said all along he would follow the letter of the law as defined by the Board of Elections,” said Brown’s spokesman. Translation: We are confident that the board appointed by Brown’s biggest backer, Gov. O’Malley, will give us a favorable ruling whether it makes sense or not.
The five-member Elections Board (three Dems, two Republicans) is appointed “with the advice and consent” of the State Senate (i.e. Mike Miller). The elections administrator, who runs the elections office, was appointed for a six-year term by the governor up until 2002, when a Republican, Bob Ehrlich, won. To keep Ehrlich from replacing Linda Lamone, a Miller loyalist, the Dems stripped Ehrlich of his appointment power and made Lamone de facto administrator for life (she’s in the 17th year of her six-year term).
So, just as the Brown camp expected, the Elections Board helped Brown and hurt Gansler, whose camp is now suing.
But all this inside baseball gets eclipsed in two weeks when the candidates must disclose how much money they’ve actually raised to date and how much they have on hand. That’s when we’ll know who’s for real and who’s not.
Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in the Business Gazette. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is email@example.com.