The people who pave the streets, erect public buildings and develop the land with houses and shopping centers have traditionally sought access to elected officials to smooth the way. In Maryland, as elsewhere, access was considered a commodity bought and sold with campaign contributions.
This year, Baltimore County Executive Theodore Venetoulis is running for governor on the promise of a "New Maryland," a state where special interests yield to grass-roots forces. As leader of the surburban county whose last two executives have been convicted of accepting kickbacks, Venetoulis has instituted reforms in the way public work is doled out and clamped controls on runaway development.
Nevertheless the developers and contractors who seek county contracts, permits and zoning changes have provided his campaign about $65,000 --which is nearly a quarter of the $270,000-Venetoulis war chest -- according to campaign reports filed earlier this month in Annapolis.
An analysis of this contributions list by The Washington Post found that 55 firms who received more than $27 million in county work during the Venetoulis administration gave $24,000 to his campaign coffers. Developers and builders, largely from the Baltimore area, have given about $40,000.
Developers, largely from the Washington area, have given a smaller but still substantial amount -- about $25,000 --front-runner in the four-way primary race.
Venetoulis says he is "intrigued" to learn for the first time from a report er, that he is so highly regarded by contractors and builders. There is no evidence to indicate that, as county executive, Venetoulis has helped them win county contracts or zoning changes. In some cases, there is even evidence to the contrary. But that hasn't stopped these traditional campaign donors.
"The developer, the builder, the construction type either hopes to get business from the state or they hope not to make an enemy," said Chris Hayes, president of Hayes Construction Co., a $500 Venetoulis contributor.
"People in the construction business are so much more at the mercy of government than anyone else," Hayes said. "Every time they do a job, they need a permit. They need inspections all along the way. People in office have a tremendous power over them and their everyday ability to make a living."
"People who give to me know there is no quid pro quo, and the public knows that," Venetoulis said Thursday. The candidate discussed fundraisings after a Wheaton Plaza parking lot press conference where he attacked Lee's first year in office as a continuation of the "old political system" that "had made Maryland the butt of jokes throughout the country."
"I don't really know who contributs to my campaign," the candidate said away from the television cameras. "It have a very limited role. I show up at fundraisers."
The fundraisers range from modest coffee klatches to a larger affair held at Martin's West in Baltimore County this spring. Apart from contractors and developers, Maryland's Greek community has contributed an estimated $70,000 to the Venetoulis campaign. Local union groups comprises another large group of Venetoulis supporters, accounting for more than $8,000 according to campaign reports filed earlier this month.
"There is certainly no concerted effort to solicit" donations from contractors who do work for the county government, Venetoulis said.
Indeed, the county charter prohibits any "officer or employe of the county" from being "interested in" or receiving 'any benefit from the profits or emoluments of any contract, job, work or service for the county." The clause has never been construed so narrowly, however, as to include campaign contributions from firms doing business with the county.
Venetoulis said he has nothing to do with selecting contractors, who are chosen either through competitive bidding, or by professional services selection committees he established shortly after taking office.
What he calls his "progressive approach to growth management in the county" was incorporated into his controversial "Interim Development control Act," which emphasizes town centers and seeks to retard suburban sprawl.
From a builder's prespective, curbing growth in this manner can be better than stopping it entirely. "He's anti-no-growth. He's in favor of planned change," said one Harford County architect, whose firm gave $300 to Venetoluis.
Mike Yerman, a builder-developer who heads Venetoulis' fundraising committee, said the controlled growth policy has turned off some builders asked to give to the campaign.
"Some say no, they don't like his growth policy," said Yerman, whose family has given $550 to the campaign, as individuals and through various companies.
"Many people in development hate (Venetoulis's) guts," said Robert Chertkoff, a real estate developer in Baltimore County who nonetheless gave $500 to Venetoulis because "he's dynamic . . . an hones man, a clean man."
Chertkoff and his father, Jack, own large portions of Essex, a deteriorating community in eastern Baltimore County and one of five towns slated for revitalization under the Venetoulis administration. Plans under discussion calling for the county to purchase property in Essex would benefit the Chertkoffs and others.
To the extent the Venetoulis campaign has been able to attract developers' money, Yerman takes some of the credit, but he adds quickly:
"It is not a builder-developer campaign. They've always given to political campaigns, for whatever their interests are . . . . I guess we're target people, always have been. We're educated in the process."
Nowadays, However, the politicians may not have the powers they once had to make or break a builder, according to Robert Brown, of the Maryland Homebuilders Association, which fought the Venetoulis development controls.
"I think a lot of people still think he can do something for them, but I don't believe he actually can," Brown said. "The controls are so extensive these days that I just don't think it could be done."
In fact, more than one Baltimore County entrepreneur is supporting the Venetoulis campaign in spite of building plans that went awry in Venetoulis' county. Philip M. Hoag, a 33-year-old Burger King franchise owner from Cockeysville, and an associate have raised and contributed nearly $3,000 to the campaign after a long and often frustrating -- and eventually successful -- battle to build a new fast food outlet in the county seat.
Hoag's battle to build a new Burger King in Towson lasted more than a year, and required a court challenge to the county's refusal to process building permits.
Hoag finally prevailed, but no thanks, he said, to Venetoulis. "I could get (angry) and say he didn't help me out any, which he didn't. I never asked him to," he said. "There are a lot of things I haven't been wild about in zoning and so forth," but Hoag said he supports Venetoulis for his "charisma and freshness."
Another contributor, lawyer-interpreneur Peter Angelos, sought a zoning change in the county to turn a junkyard into a $10-million shopping center. He lost. "I didn't even ask (Venetoulis) for help. Maybe that's why I lost," said Angelos, who has donated $40 to Venetoulis, whom he described as an old friend.
Harry T. Campbell & Sons, a Towson firm that sells construction materials, won, through competitive bidding, more than $5 million in county work. It has contributed $500 to the campaign.
"We contribute to all the leading candidates," said the firm's president, Jack West. "We make the decision based upon our own needs which I do not care to document." No Campbell & Sons contributions for Lee were apparent, however, in the lists examined.
"We contribute to everybody," explained Tom Jones of Portnoy-Jones Valley Lighting Co., another Towson firm that gave Venetoulis $1,000 and received $3,546 in county funds for the purchase of lamps during Venetoulis's administration. "With the broad base of customers we have, we can't afford to discriminate."
B.T. Christhilf, whose firm sold the county $163,000 worth of machines to Baltimore County during the Venetiulos years, attributed his firm's $100 contribution to a desire not to make enemies. "You could be criticized in some way" for not contributing, he said.
Christhilf said he had not yet decided which candidate would be his vote.
"I guess everybody expects to get something" for contributing, he said. "I've had politicians tell me that the people who give $5 expect favors."
Joseph Averza, whose construction firm received nearly $1.7 million in competitively bid contracts, explained his $100 contribution to Venetoulis this way: "In all the years I've never hoped to get anything out of it. All it does is let you get to know them on a personal basis."
Several contributors said they gave because customers asked them to -- a direct economic investment promising immediate returns rather than one carrying a long-term expectation of government contracts.
And, despite Venetoulis's efforts to project himself as a grass-roots spokesman, his image is sufficiently blurred to attract many of the builders and companies who would ordinarily oppose such a candidate.
"I'm against anyone who is a liberal and a consumer screwball," said the president of Penn Pontiac, a firm that did $1.4-million worth of business with the county during the Venetoulis years and gave $250 to his campaign. "I want someone who wants business enterprise and someone who is business-oriented." Venetoulis, he said, fits the bill.