In Md. governor's race, Baltimore no longer epicenter for campaign cash
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 10:10 PM
Baltimore and its suburbs have for decades served as the epicenter of political fundraising in Maryland. Businesses atop the city's downtown high-rises, often with views of the shimmering Inner Harbor, and wealthy residents farther out in the tidy suburbs that ring the city's version of a beltway have most often opened their checkbooks for candidates running for governor.
Not this year. Down Interstate 95, across the twisty northern span of the Capital Beltway, and tucked in a cluster of gated mansions in Potomac is Maryland's new capital for money in politics.
Just outside the District line, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) have collected more money from Montgomery County's 20854 Zip code than from any other.
"It's mostly Democratic around here, as you can probably see," said John Sverha, a retired former hospital president, motioning late last week to O'Malley campaign signs in yards flanking his relatively modest brick home off Falls Road. "I guess I gave this year to Ehrlich out of principle. I'm expecting a tax hike if O'Malley is reelected."
Sverha's $50 check stands out as noticeably tiny in Potomac. Down the block, a neighbor wrote one to O'Malley for $500. Around the corner, another for $1,000. And thanks largely to donations from a few hundred who live in tree-lined estates with four- and six-car garages north of Congressional Golf Course, the total for Zip code 20854 last week stood at nearly $600,000.
The Washington suburbs' emergence as a fundraising powerhouse, however, has done little to shed light on the industry and business interests working most intently to influence the governor's race.
In fact, good-government advocates say, the shift has only highlighted how, because of weak state laws, much less is known about the way money influences politics in Maryland compared with national races next door in Washington.
For its progressive reputation in many other areas, Maryland has the 44th-worst-ranked set of campaign finance disclosure laws in the country, according to a UCLA study. Donors are shielded from having to disclose the names of their employers, what industries they work in and other basic data commonly required to contribute to federal campaigns.
"When all you can see is that John Jones from Baltimore or Jane Smith from Washington is giving $4,000 to Martin O'Malley, that doesn't mean much," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies at UCLA. "But if you can see that John works for a company where a bunch of other people are giving money and he's a secretary - and how can he afford $4,000? - it raises a whole other set of questions."
Maryland's lack of disclosures makes it impossible to come up with a comprehensive portrait of the interests behind the majority of $26 million being spent to elect and curry favor with the next governor, but a Washington Post analysis identified the industries associated with 40 percent of the money contributed to the two men over the past eight years.
The donors' employers and industries were identified through federal records from the Center for Responsive Politics, information from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, and Post research.
The analysis found that many with related interests are giving more than the state's $4,000 cap for a single political campaign and its $10,000 cap in a four-year period. Some are donating through multiple family members or divisions of a company.