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Md. bill would loosen restrictions on donations for Prince George’s candidates

Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) drafted a proposal to roll back campaign finance restrictions after watching then-County Executive Rushern L. Baker III struggle to raise funds to run for governor. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Maryland lawmakers are considering removing strict campaign finance restrictions on Prince George’s county executives that they say hurt Rushern L. Baker III during his gubernatorial bid last year.

The bill being pushed in the General Assembly would repeal statutes prohibiting developers with pending projects in Prince George’s from donating to county executives or slates including them.

Nine years ago, Baker (D), who took office three weeks after his predecessor was arrested on public corruption charges, led efforts to substantially strengthen the ethics law as part of his effort to rehabilitate the county’s image.

But today, lawmakers say the county’s reputation is much improved, and rolling back the restrictions — which are unique to Prince George’s — is necessary for candidates from the county to compete statewide.

“The county executive position has been a launchpad for statewide office . . . but for Prince Georgians to have a shot, there needs to be an even playing field,” said Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), a longtime friend of Baker’s who also works as deputy director of the county’s Office of Community Relations and wrote the bill.

The legislation would not lift the prohibition on developer donations for County Council members, who handle land-use decisions. The proposal was approved by the Prince George’s delegation in Annapolis on Friday and will be considered in a committee hearing next month.

Baker declined to comment on the bill.

When introduced, Baker’s push to bar slates including county executives and council members from receiving developer donations faced opposition from many local officials. County executives and council members were already prohibited from directly receiving funds from developers. But in Prince George’s, fundraising is often done through slates formed by groups of local candidates.

Baker said at the time that strengthening the existing law was necessary to help end the perception of “pay-to-play” politics that had long festered in Prince George’s but burst into the open with the arrest of then-County Executive Jack. B Johnson (D).

In his eight years, Baker cleaned up the county’s reputation and significantly boosted the commercial tax base.

But lawmakers say it’s still an open question whether residents would be comfortable rolling back the ethics restrictions.

Davis said the law Baker pushed did not address the corruption problem he sought to fix — Johnson was arrested for taking more than $1 million in bribes, not for any campaign-finance related offenses, he pointed out.

But the impetus for the bill loosening the restrictions was watching Baker’s recent fundraising struggles, Davis said.

Days before the Democratic gubernatorial primary last June, Baker had less than half as much cash on hand as the eventual nominee, former NAACP chief Ben Jealous.

Then-Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D), who was running as well, also substantially led Baker in fundraising before his sudden death of heart failure weeks before the primary.

While some political insiders say fundraising was never Baker’s strong suit, his campaign staff blamed the 2011 law for his low fundraising totals.

“Resources were definitely a problem,” said Davis, who chairs the House Economic Matters Committee. “If he had a greater ability to get his message out, would he have been more successful?”

No former Prince George’s officials hold statewide office; the last county elected official to become governor was Parris N. Glendening, a former county executive who was elected in 1994.

“If we prohibit our county executive from raising money from developers then we are really saying we don’t want our county executives to be governor,” said County Council member Jolene Ivey (D-District 5). “But I’m guessing and hoping that’s not the case.”

County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), who succeeded Baker in December, is considered a possible gubernatorial contender in 2022.

Her spokesman, John Erzen, said the county executive’s office will not take a position on Davis’s bill and plans to focus on its own legislative priorities, including county beautification, creating harsher fines for illegal dumping and securing funding to make Indian Head Highway safer.

“It’s for the delegation and the General Assembly to decide if it’s good policy,” Erzen said.

Davis, who was appointed to his county job by Baker, said his position in county government did not affect his proposal. He said he had not discussed the bill with Alsobrooks.

Prince George’s County Council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6) said he supported the legislation because the current law has “hamstrung the fundraising ability of the county executive.”

“It was an overreaction, and it was misdirected,” Davis said.

Ivey and council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-District 1) said the ban on developer donations should also be extended to candidates for county executive, regardless of those candidates’ current jobs.

Alsobrooks, a former state’s attorney, was criticized during the Democratic primary for accepting donations from developers, which her main opponent, former congresswoman Donna F. Edwards, did not do.

Dernoga suggested that a task force be created to review the entire law.

Both Del. Davis and council member Davis said they recognized that rolling back any ethics-related measures could be viewed negatively. But council member Davis said residents will have to trust that elected officials will continue “to be the honorable public servants we’ve been since our careers started in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

“You can’t allow the mistakes of others to ruin the entire lot,” he said.