Md. lawmakers conduct fundraising frenzy on eve of legislative session

They arrived not long after sunrise — those whose connections could help steer the course of legislation in Maryland and those who wish they could — and descended upon historic inns, bars and a union shop for breakfast.

By 10 a.m. Tuesday, at least eight political fundraisers already had been held within steps of the State House in Annapolis, and the collection of money was to continue through the night and into Wednesday morning.

When the 2014 General Assembly session begins at noon Wednesday, so too will a ban on collecting campaign donations for legislators and officials elected statewide. The intent of the prohibition is to prevent politicians from being unduly swayed while debating and deciding the laws of the land.

Although each January is marked by a last-minute cash grab, this year is different: All statewide seats and all 188 seats in the General Assembly will be on the ballot in November, and the primary election has been moved up to June from September, shortening the fundraising window and intensifying the pleas.

“It’s a shark feeding frenzy,” said Gerard E. Evans, one of Annapolis’s highest-paid lobbyists, who said he attended five fundraisers Monday and five more Tuesday. “It’s incredible. It’s never been quite like this before.”

First thing Tuesday morning at the Governor Calvert House, shivering valets parked cars while Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) mingled with four-figure donors. Under the same roof was a fundraiser for a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

Next door at Harry Browne’s, a celebrated bar and restaurant that’s a lobbyist favorite, supporters of a delegate running for county executive filled the downstairs dining room while those supporting a Republican hoping to run for governor gathered upstairs. At an Irish pub around the corner, the specials chalkboard proclaimed: “Welcome Delegate Tom Hucker!”

Since New Year’s Day, there have been more than 40 fundraisers in Annapolis and around the state, according to a lobbying shop that maintains a list. Most were breakfasts, but there were a few evening receptions. Tickets often started at $100 or $250 and went up from there.

Fundraising was expected to continue right up to 11:59 a.m. Wednesday, with at least one campaign saying it had volunteers ready to drive around the state and pick up checks before the deadline.

Candidates said they were aware of the perception voters might have of the frenzied mixing of lobbyists and the politicians they’re paid to influence.

“When constituents see lobbyists in groups, they get suspicious,” said Del. Ronald A. George (R-Anne Arundel), a jeweler and gubernatorial candidate who spent an intense hour talking one on one with 40 to 50 donors Tuesday morning. Many were lobbyists who advocate for health-care issues, retirees, children and small businesses that are “scared stiff” about changes in the state, he said.

“This is helping me get ready for the session,” George said as his staff members and friends loaded up glass plates at the breakfast buffet.

Maryland lawmakers adopted the ban on fundraising in 1997, codifying a rule that had been in place in both the House and the Senate and adding statewide officials: the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller.

The ban is an attempt to curb the influence of monied interests during the 90-day legislative session in a town where ethics have long been a challenge and pushing the envelope is nothing new. The day before the 1997 session began, prominent lobbyist Gary R. Alexander caused a stir by dispatching an aide to hand out campaign contributions in the House office building, in some cases reportedly slipping them under doors.

“It’s perception: The people will see he voted, she voted for that and the day before, they got money,” said Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Prince George’s), who had a breakfast fundraiser near her home Monday and is looking forward to the ban starting Wednesday. “It challenges your integrity in the public eye. We’re down there to make the state a better place, not to get reelected.”

Others say the ban simply pushes lawmakers to find creative loopholes.

“If they want to give me money, they’re either going to give it right before or right after the session. It doesn’t matter,” said Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr. (R-Baltimore County). “They can’t buy access to me.”

Twenty-eight other states, including Virginia, place restrictions on contributions during legislative sessions. Not all are as broad as those in Maryland; for example, some apply only to lobbyists.

This session, there are questions over exactly who is covered by the ban. Supporters of Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Douglas F. Gansler are trying to block the running mate of rival candidate Anthony G. Brown from collecting checks during the session.

Gansler, the state’s attorney general, and Brown, its lieutenant governor, are explicitly covered by the ban, as is Gansler’s running mate, Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s). But Brown’s running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D), is not.

Gansler supporters argue that the ban should also apply to Ulman. The State Board of Elections gave Ulman permission to continue raising money during the session, prompting Gansler’s team to seek an emergency hearing before the session starts.

Under the board’s interpretation of the law, Harford County Executive David R. Craig, a leading Republican contender for governor, is also free to raise money, even though his running mate, Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (R-Talbot), is prohibited.

Wednesday also marks the final day of a fundraising period for which candidates will have to disclose their contributions next week. For most, it will be the first time in a year that they have had to do so, and in competitive races, candidate totals will be seen as a sign of strength or weakness.

That has prompted a slew of late-hour solicitations, including an e-mail Monday from Del. Heather R. Mizeur’s (D-Montgomery) campaign manager to supporters.

“This is the most critical deadline we’ve faced yet because everyone will know just how much money we have in the bank,” the message read. “And this report will be the benchmark to show reporters, pundits and our opponents that we are in this race to win. But we need to make sure we are in the strongest position possible when we file.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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