WASHINGTON – A dozen Marylanders contributed a combined $432,000 in “soft money” to political parties in the first half of this year, a practice congressional reformers have targeted as unfair.
The state’s soft-money donors were led by Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who gave $200,000, and include Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder, who gave $25,000 in the first six months of the 1999-2000 election cycle.
“I support the Democratic Party,” Angelos said. “I think, if I can afford it, I should do my part.”
In all, 23 individual contributors from Maryland gave $457,810 in soft money to the political parties, mostly to Democrats. Snyder was one of the state’s few Republican soft-money donors, according to FECInfo, which compiles Federal Elections Commission data.
But the House last week passed a bipartisan campaign finance reform bill to prohibit soft money donations and the Senate is expected to take up a similar measure next month.
There are no limits on soft money donations, which are virtually unregulated. The money cannot be directed to specific candidates but is supposed to be used by political parties only for “party-building activities.”
Parties have found ways to use the money on individual campaigns, however, most notably through “issue ads.” While those ads do not endorse a specific candidacy, they clearly link the candidate to an issue that the ad supports.
“The main problem with soft money is that it buys access and influence that ordinary Americans don’t have,” said Jeff Cronin, a spokesman for Common Cause, a lobbying organization supporting campaign finance reform.
“One individual can give millions and millions of dollars to influence elections,” said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Baltimore, who voted in favor of the reform bill. “That’s not fair.”
But the donors defend the practice as simply another form of political support. Chevy Chase’s Terence T. Finn, a retired NASA employee who has contributed $30,000 in soft money so far this year, said he spends a lot of money because he needs to, not to buy access.
“The way in which democracy functions in this coontry is by political parties duking it out,” said Finn. “I think it’s important for the Democrats to raise enough money to be competitive with the Republicans.”
Cynthia Friedman, a business executive from Chevy Chase who has contributed $12,000 in soft money, said a ban or some limit on soft money is necessary.
“I see the amounts of money being spent just to make a dent, it’s way too huge,” she said. “It’s [campaign spending] just gotten wild and out of hand.”
Finn agreed some type of reform is needed, but said there are better ways than banning soft-money contributions. He said he would rather see costs reduced for campaign television advertisements or see limits on the time period during which candidates can campaign.
Echoing the sentiments of many of the bill’s opponents, Finn said he felt a ban on soft money would be an infringement on First Amendment rights.
“Am I for campaign finance reform? Absolutely,” Finn said. “But don’t tell me how much money I can or cannot spend because that’s for me to decide.”
Cronin denied that the prohibitions in the House reform bill violate free speech rights.
“From our point of view, we believe it’s fully constitutional,” Cronin said. “Everything that’s in Shays-Meehan [reform bill] is fully within Supreme Court doctrine.”
Angelos, listed by FECInfo as the seventh-highest soft-money donor in the nation this year, agreed the issue “needs to be addressed.” But he said the issue was too complex for any single answer.
In the meantime, he said he will continue his pattern of large soft-money contributions.
“As long as the support of the party, in the fashion I am involved in, is permitted, I will continue [to contribute],” he said.
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