Democrats' New Fund-Raising Tactic Rankles Md. Republicans
By Scott Wilson
At the center of the controversy is an announcement by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) last fall that he had formed a political slate encompassing 24 of 31 Democratic state senators with the goal of raising $1 million for their collective campaigns.
The declaration marked the first time anyone in Maryland had formed a fund-raising slate that included candidates who live in different counties or legislative districts. And Republicans quickly cried foul, calling the new statewide slate a "perversion" of Maryland's restrictive campaign finance rules.
Unlike other campaign committees in Maryland, slate contributions to its members are not bound by financial limits. Political action committees or party committees, by contrast, are prohibited from giving individual candidates more than $6,000 during a four-year election cycle.
Republicans fear that Miller will be able to use the slate's sizable campaign coffers to pump tens of thousands of dollars into select races involving slate members, including many from the Washington area, a financial windfall that could help swing close contests and keep Democrats in power.
Last week, GOP members of the House of Delegates failed to win committee approval of a bill that would limit participation on slates to candidates who live in the same county, judicial or legislative district. They vowed to take their fight to the House floor this week.
Miller staunchly defends the fund-raising technique, which is common in other states. With the Democratic National Committee $9 million in debt, Miller said his slate is a way to compete against Republican candidates whom he expects to receive big money from flush GOP national committees.
"I'm not a Virgin Mary when it comes to fund-raising and politics," Miller said. "I know what's happening around the country. We're going to go on the defensive. And if we have to, we're going into attack mode."
In Maryland, slates have proliferated in recent years as candidates have searched for new ways to pool their resources in a state where contributions are subject to strict limits. Of the 41 active slates, 36 have been formed since 1990.
Under Maryland's campaign finance laws, a donor cannot give more than $4,000 to an individual during a four-year election cycle and more than $10,000 to all candidates combined during that period. But there is no limit on how much a slate can give to a member candidate and no limit on contributions that a slate member can give to the slate.
What is less clear is whether state law permits what has become an increasingly common practice: donors giving a candidate $4,000 and the candidate's slate an additional $4,000. Maryland law states that a donor is limited to giving $4,000 to a candidate "including all of the candidate's authorized treasurers and committees." Whether a slate is considered a candidate committee is "an open question," said Kathleen Hoke Dachille, the Maryland attorney general's counsel for election law.
"It is one [issue] that has not been addressed with a written opinion," said Dachille, who said no one has asked her to analyze that aspect of the finance rules. "From a policy perspective, we'd have to take a very close look at that circumstance."
Miller, who created his statewide senatorial slate in October, could use it to move money from well-financed senators to those with slim resources and, his critics contend, cement political loyalty by doing so. Miller has $420,000 in his individual campaign account -- four times more than the average cost of a successful Senate race in 1994.
"It threatens to make all contribution limits meaningless," said Kathleen Skullney, executive director of the Maryland chapter of Common Cause.
A bill sponsored by 40 of the 41 Republican members of the House of Delegates would have restricted slate membership to candidates from the same county, legislative or judicial district, but it failed last week in the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee. The measure, however, will resurface tomorrow on the House floor as a proposed amendment to a 253-page bill revising the state election code. Republican leaders, who expect the measure to fail, want a record of the vote to use this election season.
"This is a campaign issue for us," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard), the House minority whip. "This is an abuse of the existing law. It makes the Democratic Senate candidates who take money the puppets of Mike Miller."
Both parties are preparing to raise millions of dollars for an election year in which almost all statewide offices will be contested. Last year, Maryland Republican Party Chairman Joyce Lyons Terhes said she would channel money into nine Senate races this season. Republicans, who hold 15 seats in the state Senate, need to pick up at least one in the 47-member chamber to give them enough to filibuster and four to prevent veto overrides.
"You bet your bottom dollar we are going to target," Terhes said last week. "This is the first time in years that we've been this competitive."
In 1994, the Democrats lost six Senate seats. Fearing a repeat, Miller portrays his statewide slate as a defense fund to counter Terhes's strategy. He said he remembers last year's Virginia elections in which national Republican committees outspent their Democratic counterparts 10 to 1.
"Our first goal is going to be incumbent protection," Miller said of the statewide slate. "Then, we'll look at open seats."
Republicans have never formed a statewide slate, but party leaders have disbursed money to candidates through a political action committee now called the Maryland Republican Legislators Committee. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a GOP gubernatorial candidate, is the PAC's chairman.
But the Republican PAC must conform with strict contribution limits. Under Maryland law, a political action committee cannot give more than $6,000 to an individual candidate during a four-year election cycle. PACs can contribute to as many candidates as they wish.
In 1994, the Republican PAC raised $144,260 and spent $143,000 on state races with great success. Of the House's 25 victorious Republican freshmen, the Republican PAC had given money to 23.
Del. Robert H. Kittleman (R-Howard), the House minority leader, said that what makes the Democratic slate so threatening is the Senate president's fund-raising prowess. In December, Miller raised $500,000 for the senatorial slate during a single $500-a-person event at the Harbor Court Hotel in Baltimore that included Senate committee chairmen, lobbyists and PAC leaders.
"Mike Miller has a fund-raiser and brings in $500,000," Kittleman said. "We need four fund-raisers to make $100,000."
What Republicans fear is that members of the slate who don't face serious challenge in November will transfer campaign funds to the slate, which in turn can distribute the money to member senators in competitive races.
For instance, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore), who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, has given $50,000 alone to the slate from her individual campaign treasury.
"I'm not shy about it," Hoffman said. "It's unabashedly a partisan issue. I don't think there's any evil in it."
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