Maryland's powerful business interests, which like many private groups have spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to affect the outcome of legislative races, will spend $50,000 this year on a telephone survey to pinpoint those districts most favorable to "probusiness" candidates, a spokesman for the statewide Chamber of Commerce said today.
The announcement by chamber spokesman Charles Krautler caused a stir at a hearing of the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, some of whose members sharply criticized the survey as a first step toward creation of a "political hit list" of legislators who vote against business interests.
"Why don't you tell us the name of the incumbents on the hit list?" snapped Del. Michael R. Gordon (D-Montgomery), whose positions on consumer issues and opposition to banking and insurance deregulation have put him on less-than-warm terms with some segments of the business community.
Krautler replied that the purpose of the survey, which will begin in about six weeks by a chamber affiliate called Maryland Business for Responsive Government (MBRG), is not to target specific candidates for defeat, although it will focus, in part, on "whether a probusiness candidate might have a chance" in a particular legislative district. The questions will not mention incumbent delegates by name, an MBRG spokesman said. But Gordon said he fears that the phrasing of questions could isolate vulnerable delegates.
The $50,000 the chamber is spending is the largest sum it ever has allocated for a voter survey.
The sharp exchanges among Gordon, Del. Frank B. Pesci (D-Prince George's) and Krautler briefly overshadowed a three-hour discussion of a Pesci bill designed to restrict contributions by political action committees (PACs) to state and local political candidates.
Pesci argued at length for his legislation today, saying it would help curb the influence that corporate and special interests now enjoy in politics because of PACs. However, Gordon and other cosponsors of the measure said the bill probably would suffer the fate of a similar measure in the Senate and die in committee.
With the PAC bill all but dead, Gordon used the hearing to needle Krautler and MBRG, a group of some of the 16 largest corporations in the state, which has hired a Mississippi company to conduct its voter survey.
MBRG spokesman Robert O.C. Worcester defended the random telephone interviews of 1,200 Maryland residents as simply a way to gauge voters' views on a variety of issues related to business and politics.
"It's not a hit list. That's hysteria," Worcester said late today. "To call it a hit list smacks of impulsive, immature, selfish behavior. We're trying to do the opposite."
Worcester said the survey was inspired by business's view that "there are not enough people in elected office who understand the dynamics" of Maryland's economy, which in the last 15 years has suffered the loss of 71,000 manufacturing jobs.
Worcester added that the telephone survey marks a dramatic shift for business leaders who during the political scandals here in the 1970s "sat on the sidelines and said, 'Hands off politics.'