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  • Maryland Elections '98

  •   On the Harbor, Shrimp
    And Special Interests

    By Scott Wilson
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, June 10, 1998; Page B01

    BALTIMORE, June 9—Don't let the bad Hawaiian shirts fool you. It may look like a banker's idea of a rowdy summer shindig, but the hundreds of people gathered at the Inner Harbor's edge are here less for the reggae than for cold political reality.

    For Maryland's business and lobbying class, state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell's annual waterfront "Jamaica-Me-Crazy" fete is perhaps the one must-attend event in a long string of election-year fund-raisers. The urban beach party is a chance to give a little something -- that is, money -- to the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a slap-on-the-back Baltimore County Democrat with no announced opponent and huge influence over Maryland's banking, horse racing, transportation, lottery, utility, insurance and health care industries.

    As it happens, the puck-size shrimp, jerk chicken, imported palm trees and beach sand also make Bromwell's party one of the few fun fund-raisers in a usually tedious, summer-long marathon of small talk, name tags and pasta bars. There are no stump speeches, no endless candidate introductions. Just calypso music, beer, boat drinks and, in the words of one political action committee chief, "babes."

    "You spend the extra dime, you make a little more money and you try to give people good food and good drink," said Bromwell, standing in the rain wearing shorts and loafers without socks last night to greet each of the guests.

    More than 1,000 people were expected. Vans and limousines pulled up to the curb, while in a nearby lot, guys with fluorescent flags orchestrated parking.

    "I've been waiting to see those legs," shouted a woman from Bromwell's blue-collar district, throwing open her arms for the lawmaker.

    "This," he said, "is one of my closest friends."

    Bromwell is a unique Annapolis personality, "a party in himself," a fan said. And the stars of both parties turn out for an event that feels more like a frat party than a fund-raiser. Ray Schoenke, a Democrat running for governor as an outsider, explained, "I want to be seen."

    "I'm not going to get a lot of endorsements from the insiders," he said. "But they are still important."

    "It's a madhouse in there," said former governor William Donald Schaefer (D), wearing a pinstripe suit over a golf shirt. "On this level, I have never seen anyone raise money like this."

    There wasn't a seersucker suit in the place who would disagree, and the reasons go beyond Bromwell's hand-kissing, piles of tenderloin and steel drums. His clout is the big draw, at least to those wearing silk ties rather than the floral shirts and short pastel dresses favored by his legion of personal friends.

    "That committee has more special interests come before it than any other," said Laurence Levitan, a former state senator who is now a lobbyist. "If another chairman had a similar event, it wouldn't get as many people."

    It's not as if Bromwell needs the money. Already he has collected $325,142 for his race this year. In 1994, when he won reelection to a fourth Senate term, his challenger, John J. Bishop, spent $12,842 to Bromwell's $236,314. Bromwell said he considered not holding the party this year, but his friends wouldn't hear of it. He plans to use extra funds to help other Senate candidates.

    "He's scared off all the competition up here," said Bishop, a former state delegate who is considering another run. "Lobbyists are afraid not to give to him."

    The event provides a look at the combination of money and politics. Last year, Bromwell collected more than $100,000 during the event from such contributors as Blue Cross/Blue Shield Maryland Employee PAC ($1,800), the Maryland Horsebreeders Association PAC ($700), the Maryland BankPAC ($2,000) and Associated Utility Contractors of Maryland ($5,500). All have regular business before his committee, either fighting or supporting legislation.

    Bromwell has the power to speed up bills he favors and kill those he opposes. As a result, the opposition characterizes the party as legal bribery dressed up in beach clothes. But even Republicans on Bromwell's committee, whose party only dreams of $100,000 paydays, say the griping is bad sportsmanship.

    "No question about it, this goes with the turf," said Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary (R), who served with Bromwell in the House of Delegates.

    Bromwell is one of the few Maryland politicians with the personality and position to raise six figures in a night. Last year, he spent about $20,000 to stage the party, including a chartered Inner Harbor cruise for big givers. The boat was so crowded it couldn't leave the dock. The $100-a-ticket admission price is a floor, and most shell out more. John Schneider, Bromwell's treasurer for two decades, said he sends out 3,600 tickets and hopes one-third of that number show up.

    "No pressure," he said, recalling a time when Bromwell could barely sell 300 $8 tickets to a bull roast. "He doesn't want to know who comes. He just asks for the bottom line."

    The event has swelled each of the last four years since Bromwell moved it from the antiseptic state fair grounds in Timonium. Despite his aplomb, the bull roasts were yawners. Now the party is a swirl of cigar smoke and tables groaning under rice pilaf, crab, steak, shrimp -- and checks.

    "I'd like to think people come because of me," said Bromwell, a plastic cup of beer in one hand, a guest's hand in the other. "But I know they come for all kinds of reasons."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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