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Mobtown Beat

Who Loves Ya, Baby?

Big-money donors, not the grassroots, funded the winners in last year’s Baltimore elections

Photo: Mel Guapo, License: N/A

Mel Guapo


It seems Baltimore City’s voters have so little love for their politicians, or the process of electing them, that only a few bothered to vote in last year’s elections—about 23 percent in September’s primaries and 14 percent in November’s general. Hoping to boost turnout, the newly elected City Council wants to align the city’s elections to the presidential cycle (Councilmania, Feb. 1). “If you want to get the best person in office,” Councilmember Robert Curran (D-3rd District) said when the legislation was introduced Jan. 23, “you have to have the best turnout.”

In the absence of confidence-inspiring turnouts, perhaps the best proxy for measuring the love that Baltimore’s politicians enjoy is in their campaign finances. Taking stock of the 17 winning campaigns’ finances shows they raised the bulk of their election funds last year—65 percent—from big-ticket donations of $1,000 or more, and only a tiny fraction —6 percent—from grassroots donations of $200 or less. Thus, Baltimore’s love for its leaders—the mayor, comptroller, City Council president, and 14 members of the City Council—is coming from the few, both in terms of votes and campaign cash.

The proportion of small, $200-or-less donations is a widely used gauge of the grassroots nature of contemporary political campaigns. For instance, President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics (opensecrets.org), so far has relied on the $200-or-less set for 46 percent of its fundraising total, while 54 percent of its take has come from big-ticket donations of $1,000 or more. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney’s fundraising efforts, on the other hand, have drawn 9 percent of its total take from grassroots donations and 91 percent from the $1,000-plus gang.

Thus, in Baltimore’s parochial elections to pick who will grapple the most pedestrian issues of governance—crime, grime, water and sewer service, zoning and building codes, filling potholes, and the like—the winners engaged in fundraising that more closely resembles Romney’s than it does Obama’s.

In the absence of love from the many in this poverty-stricken city, Mobtown’s leaders have wallowed in the elitist love of the well-heeled few. They’ve done so even more than the gubernatorial contenders in Maryland’s 2010 elections, when the winner, Martin O’Malley (D), took in 10 percent of his election-year total from donations of $200 or less (compared to 20 percent by his rival, Robert Ehrlich [R]), and more than 70 percent from the $1,000-and-over crowd (compared to Ehrlich’s 59 percent).

In last year’s city elections, the campaign of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) best illustrates this phenomenon. Last year it raised about $1.7 million, but only $54,000 of that total, or 3.2 percent, came from donations of $200 or less. The total amount from donations of $1,000 or more, meanwhile, came to $1.27 million, or nearly three-quarters of the total.

City Paper sought comment about this from Rawlings-Blake by sending an e-mail to her spokesperson, Ryan O’Doherty, who wrote back, saying, “I’m a government employee. I don’t comment on political donations.” City Paper asked O’Doherty to alert Rawlings-Blake about the matter, should she choose to comment, but did not hear back by press time.

Among the 14 winners in the district races for City Council, two—Carl Stokes (D-12th District) and Warren Branch (D-13th District) —engaged in notably elitist fundraising. Stokes’ campaign raised more than $190,000, with about 6 percent coming from grassroots donations and nearly three-quarters (about $140,000) from the $1,000-and-up crew. Of the nearly $70,000 Branch’s campaign raised, meanwhile, 5 percent came from $200-or-less donations and 56 percent came from those giving $1,000 or more.

Stokes explains his campaign’s emphasis on big-donor fundraising by contending that “I needed to raise money quickly” because powerful politicians—he cites O’Malley and Rawlings-Blake—were trying to assure his defeat. “So I started raising money beyond chicken dinners,” he says, “because I couldn’t stand around and wait.” In particular, he says, money he didn’t solicit poured in from firms and associates of Baltimore Orioles owner and super-lawyer Peter Angelos; in all, Stokes doesn’t quibble with the estimate that $55,000 came into his campaign from Angelos-related individuals and entities.

A detailed message seeking comment was left for Branch with his aide, Glenn Ross, but was not returned by press time.

On the other end of the spectrum, the campaign of veteran Councilmember Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District) displayed the highest proportion of grassroots fundraising. Of the roughly $32,500 it took in last year, Clarke’s campaign got 48 percent from the $200-or-less set and 10 percent from big-ticket donors of $1,000 or more—though it should be noted that Clarke’s only competition was in the general election, as no one filed to run against her in the primary. The closest runner-up on the grassroots-fundraising front is the only challenger to defeat an incumbent in last year’s elections: Nick Mosby (D-7th District), whose campaign raised 28 percent of its total take from $200-or-less donations and 51 percent from donations of $1,000 or more.

“Basically,” Clarke says, “we gave people a whole range of what contributions we were asking for, for the one [fundraising] event we had. That’s pretty much how we’ve always done it. And I’m very grateful, because there are a lot of people involved.”

A related trend in last year’s elections was how some campaigns relied heavily on money from other politicians to underwrite their electoral efforts. City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D), for instance, enhanced his potential to keep most of the councilmembers in his fold by giving $3,000 to all of them last year (and $4,500 to Stokes), except for Clarke, Mosby, and William Cole (D-11th District).

Six of the campaigns for City Council took in at least one-fifth of their fundraising totals from other politicians:

 William “Pete” Welch (D-9th District): 35.2 percent, including $4,000 from his mother, former Councilmember Agnes Welch, and $3,000 each from Young and Councilmember Edward Reisinger (D-10th District).

New Councilmember Brandon Scott (D-2nd District): 29.4 percent, including $6,000 from Rawlings-Blake and $3,000 each from Young and Cole.

Mosby: 29.3 percent, including $4,144.44 from Rawlings-Blake and $4,000 from Cole.

Curran: 23 percent, including $3,000 each from Young and O’Malley (who is related to Curran by marriage) and $1,500 each from Rawlings-Blake, Cole, and Reisinger.

Bill Henry (D-4th District): 20.8 percent, including $3,000 from Young and $1,500 from Reisinger.

Branch: 20 percent, including $5,000 each from Stokes and state Del. Talmadge Branch (D-45th District).

Attempts to obtain comment from Pete Welch and Mosby were unsuccessful as of press time. Young’s spokesperson, Lester Davis, said, “I am not paid to talk about campaign-finance related issues,” and promised to let Young know that City Paper was seeking his comment, which was not forthcoming by press time.

Clarke was intrigued by City Paper’s analysis showing high levels of funding from other politicians, and bemused by the Romney-esque fundraising records of many of her colleagues. She believes her strategy, which resembles the Obama campaign’s approach of getting small amounts from large numbers of people, is the smart way to win elections.

“You’re raising money to reach people,” Clarke says, “so if you’re reaching lots of people in order to raise money, then you’ve already accomplished what you want to do—and that’s more important than the money.”

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