Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Candidates race to raise money, profile in Dist. 4

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With only about two weeks to go before primaries for the special election for the District 4 County Council seat, candidates without widespread name recognition — or the money to create it — are at a disadvantage, election observers say.

Even if candidates are able to raise the money needed to become well-known in a typical election cycle, some say there is not enough time before the April 15 primaries.

‘‘I certainly don’t envy the candidates who have to mount a full-blown, aggressive campaign in a period of just several weeks,” said Keith Haller, a political analyst with Potomac Survey Research. ‘‘Typically, it takes six months to a year to build a fundraising base. Everybody’s having to do it at a record clip. It’s akin to a white-knuckle ride.”

While the campaigns of Democrats Nancy Navarro, Donald Praisner and Pat Ryan and Republican John McKinnis seek to raise tens of thousands of dollars by the primary, Republican candidates Mark Fennel, Thomas Hardman, and Robert Patton, along with Democrat Steve Kanstoroom, say they have had less focus on raising funds, instead investing what time they have reaching out to core constituents.

Most have spent their funds on signs, fliers and campaign materials, and say in a normal election they would have focused more on fundraising to help promote themselves and their message.

Navarro, a Silver Spring resident president of the county Board of Education, said her goal is to raise $50,000 in donations from organizations and individuals, almost twice what she spent on past school board races.

‘‘This is much more intense,” she said Friday. ‘‘It’s complete madness.”

In terms of both money and name recognition, Navarro’s biggest challenger is Praisner, a Calverton resident and widower of former Councilwoman Marilyn Praisner, whose February death triggered the special election to fill her seat.

Praisner’s campaign manager, Eric Hensal, estimated that a candidate would need $35,000 to $40,000 to compete. But Hensal said his campaign is confident that voter recognition of the Praisner name will be a decisive factor.

‘‘It’s almost hard to spend a tremendous amount of money in an election like this,” he said.

Ronald Walters, a professor in government and politics at the University of Maryland, agreed.

‘‘This is going to be a name-recognition election,” he said. ‘‘This isn’t going to be a normal campaign in the sense that people are going to be able to go out and create name recognition, because they don’t have the time.”

Walters said any money candidates can raise, especially lesser-known candidates, should be spent buying ads to promote issues. Talking face-to-face with voters is important, too, he added.

‘‘It requires a lot of time, hard work and shoe leather, however, not a lot of money,” said Fennel, a marketing analyst from Silver Spring who, so far, has raised less than $2,000.

Ryan O’Donnell, executive director of Common Cause, a public interest nonprofit group, said shorter election cycles favor better-known candidates with established support organizations.

‘‘In an election that is so short, you have to raise money fast,” he said. ‘‘And some people can raise money faster than others. So in a sense, the playing field is not level, and when you have races like you do in Montgomery County that cost so much money, it’s hard to say the playing field is ever level.”

Haller said that with an estimated primary turnout of about 20 percent, candidates need to concentrate on their core constituents for money and support.

‘‘At this stage, you’re reliant on friends, families, relationships you’ve built over a lifetime or professional career,” Haller said. ‘‘And you don’t have time to do big fundraising events and direct mail to people who may be interested in the Fourth District race. So it has to be a very focused effort, maybe one on one.”

McKinnis, a Calverton resident who has run for other offices, said it’s been difficult to rally support among even loyal constituents in this race, which he called the most peculiar he’s even been in.

‘‘The hardest part is even getting them to realize that there’s an upcoming primary,” he said. ‘‘This isn’t the time that people are usually geared up to stand at polls.”

Ryan, a federal government consultant from Silver Spring, said his campaign has surpassed its original goal of $10,000 by relying on donations from individuals and organizations such as the local chapter of the International Association of Firefighters, but Ryan still is trying to cope with being ‘‘a relative unknown.”

‘‘Name recognition is always a good thing,” he said. ‘‘Being an unknown is not a good thing.”

Candidates with smaller fundraising bases are turning to inexpensive methods of campaigning.

Hardman, an information technologies developer and Aspen Hill resident, said he will try to use free online media, like blogs and YouTube. Hardman said his fundraising total is the $100 he donated to his campaign.

Patton, an athletic fields specialist and Silver Spring resident who has worked in the Peace Corps, said he has been telling would-be donors to instead give their money to the Salvation Army.

‘‘I just think the amount of money spent campaigning is so wasteful,” he said. ‘‘I’ve spent a couple hundred dollars [of his own money], and I don’t imagine I’d spend more than $500 when everything’s said and done.”

Kanstoroom, a civic activist and Ashton resident, said he has raised very little and has his own money to buy newspaper ads.

Several candidates have pledged not to take contributions from developers and some have criticized Navarro for her refusal to do the same. Navarro has countered by saying that Marilyn Praisner, whose legacy several candidates have promised to follow, also took money from developers.

Navarro said, ‘‘Why is there a double standard now with me?”