By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – The biggest “soft money” donors in Maryland gave more than $8.1 million to national political parties over the last five years, money that would dry up under legislation now steaming through Congress.
But state Democratic and Republican leaders last week said they welcome a federal campaign finance reform bill to ban most soft-money donations — despite the fact that it will hit their national parties hard in the pocket books.
Unlike other campaign donations, there is no limit to the amount of soft money that can be given to a national party for “party-building activities.”
Maryland’s biggest soft money contributor has been attorney and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who gave $1.9 million between 1997 and 2001, with the lion’s share of the money going to the Democratic Party, according to Federal Elections Commission data.
“We’re happy that we had people like Angelos who donated. It wasn’t a bad thing,” said Wayne Rogers, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. “But in the bigger picture of politics, it’s best that we just get rid of all of this.”
The ban has double meaning for Rogers: His company, Synergics Energy Development, gave the national party more than $555,000 over the past five years for party-building activities.
“The Democratic Party believes it’s the strength of your ideas rather than the fatness of your wallet that should matter,” Rogers said of his support for a soft-money ban.
Rogers charged that Republicans have been the chief beneficiaries of soft- money donations over the years, but Maryland GOP Executive Director Paul Ellington also applauded last week’s House passage of the soft-money ban.
“We’re not the beneficiaries of Mr. Angelos’ deep pockets so that is not going to impact us,” Ellington said.
The House early Thursday capped more than 16 hours of debate by voting 240-189 in support of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill. The Senate has already passed a similar bill.
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., bans soft-money donations to national parties from deep- pocketed individuals, unions and corporations. It would allow state parties to receive up to $10,000 in soft money if the money is used for get-out-the vote and voter registration efforts.
Proponents say the bill would cut back on money that is often funneled to state parties and used to finance issue ads that attack candidates. Opponents argue that that tramples on contributors’ free speech rights, but Rogers pointed out that the bill would allow individuals to fund their own issue ads, so long as they can afford them.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks money in politics, said that Maryland businesses, civic organizations and individuals last year gave $1.5 million to the Democratic and Republican national parties. The center said the national parties, in turn, gave $5,155 to the state Democratic Party in 2001 and just under $17,000 to the Maryland Republic Party.
The center said that, last year alone, Angelos gave $650,000 to the Democratic Party. He gave no soft money to Republicans last year. Angelos could not be reached for comment Friday on the impact of Shays-Meehan.
The second-largest chunk of donations from Maryland came from Lockheed Martin, which donated more than $885,000 to Republican and Democratic national committees over the past five years.
Meghan Mariman, a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman, said the company has complied “and will continue to comply with all public laws concerning campaign finance contributions.”
“We are aware of the House proposal and will withhold comment while we wait for final congressional and White House action on any new legislation,” she said of Shays-Meehan.
The center said other top soft money donors in Maryland last year included the Machinists/Aerospace Workers Union, NASDAQ, the American Association of University Women, and Hargrove Inc.
Marvin Bond, a Hargrove spokesman, said his company makes contributions purely as a marketing effort. The special-events company has been arranging presidential inaugurations from more than five decades and last year gave the Republican Party $25,000.
“We contribute politically because that is our bread and butter,” Bond said. “We don’t look for favors in any way.”