COLLEGE PARK – Rep. Elijah E. Cummings has a green thumb when it comes to campaigning these days.
With no big-name challenger to his re-election bid in sight, and $224,846 in his bank account, the Baltimore Democrat can afford to spend his campaign money elsewhere — like the $2,102 he spent for flowers at constituents’ funerals, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
“It’s a way of campaigning and it’s perfectly legitimate. You are in essence putting your best foot forward,” said David Paulson, director of communications for the Maryland Democratic Party.
“It doesn’t match buying radio time or hiring a consultant, the type of expenses you’ll commonly find on campaign reports, but it actually has to do with individuals who have a good sense of their constituents,” Paulson said.
Cummings’ policy of sprinkling money like fertilizer in the district has made at least one fan: Christine Psoras owns Flowers By Chris, where Cummings bought the flowers he reported in his FEC filing.
“Elijah is a great guy,” said Psoras, who said she has worked with Cummings for several years.
“It looks like all floral arrangements purchased were for funerals and paid for by the Cummings campaign,” she said after a check of her books.
Campaign officials defended sending flowers, saying there is a personal element to politics in Baltimore.
“I don’t think he does it because it’s out of feelings of obligation. It’s a genuine form of respect,” said Mike Christianson, Cummings’ campaign director.
“If (Cummings) feels someone made a substantial contribution to the community, he wants to show his respects. Politics is about human relationships and it’s a legitimate political expense,” Christianson said.
While buying flowers for funerals may appear to be an odd spending habit, it is considered campaigning. It may even be as simple as playing nice. Either way, the law is complex and the boundaries on spending are blurry.
“It depends on how the expenditure is treated. If it’s not a personal expense, it’s unclear how or what can or cannot be considered campaign expenditure,” said Lorenzo Morris, professor of political science at Howard University.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan, non-profit research group that tracks money in politics, has yet to do a comprehensive study of campaign expenditures, but a representative noted there are instances where campaigns have bought floral arrangements.
“It doesn’t occur all that often, but if they spend campaign money in a way related to getting re-elected, then it’s OK,” said Steven Weiss, communications director for the center.
Weiss said candidates find numerous ways to spend their money and it’s the responsibility of the campaign to explain why it did so.
“The campaign has a duty to prove that contributions are used in a way to get re-elected,” Weiss said.
The center said Cummings had raised $317,391 by June 30, spent $198,452, and had $224,846 on hand. Of the five candidates who have filed against him, only Democrat Charles McPeek Sr. has raised the minimum $5,000 that requires an FEC filing. McPeek had contributed $7,986 of his own money, and has spent the same amount.
McPeek reported having $350 on hand — one-sixth of what the Cummings campaign has spent on floral arrangements in this election cycle.
The Maryland Republican Party said it does not scrutinize how candidates choose to spend their money.
“Candidates can use their money in any way they see fit and it should be for campaign-related expenditures. I’m sure [Cummings] felt he could do it to build better relationships in the community,” said Paul Ellington, Maryland’s GOP executive director.