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Campaign laws give legislators cause to rethink jobs

Heather R. Mizeur and Ronald A. George are making a living on Maryland highways these days, burning through gallons of gas, handling phone calls in the car and getting rest where they can during the early months of their separate campaigns for governor.

Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat, and George, an Anne Arundel County Republican, are both members of the House of Delegates and are seeking Maryland’s top office. As two of 188 legislators in Annapolis, both are battling a name recognition deficiency that will be critical in June’s primary.

It’s the kind of ailment that a healthy campaign account can help cure. But when Mizeur and George are called back to Annapolis in January to begin the annual 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly, they won’t be allowed to collect a single dime for their campaign. Some of their opponents will.

State campaign finance law prohibits statewide elected officials — the governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general — plus state legislators from soliciting or accepting campaign contributions when the legislature is in session, a well-meaning statute with potentially debilitating consequences for some campaigns, especially with the 2014 primary moving to June from September.

“It is unfair,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a member of the election law subcommittee. “But obviously, we can’t change it in time for this coming election.”

Though both of Mizeur’s Democratic opponents, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, are subject to the campaign finance law, Brown’s running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, is not prohibited from raising money.

The specter of U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger — who has not decided whether to run for governor, but could raise all the money he pleased if he chose — also looms large in a Democratic primary.

“No one thought about the prospect of a congressman running for governor or something like that,” Barve said.

Mizeur was not available to comment on Thursday.

George’s situation is far more dire, as Harford County Executive David R. Craig and businessman Charles Lollar — both seeking the Republican nomination for governor — can raise as much money as they like while George toils in the legislature.

While he called the scenario “unlikely,” George said in a recent interview that he has given serious thought to resigning from elected office to keep up with his Republican competitors, who he said would hold a distinct advantage in the early 2014 money battle.

George had $21,287 in his campaign account when annual disclosure forms were made public last January. Craig reported $202,236 and another potential Republican candidate, Blaine R. Young, the Frederick County Commissioners president who also is exempt from the campaign finance law, had $341,936.

Lollar, who plans to start rolling out his campaign in September, did not report having raised any money in January.

A few months of successful fundraising has led George to believe he won’t need to beef up his kitty during the legislative session, which stretches through early April. Others, however, have said that resigning from office might be the best option available to a statewide candidate.

Donald F. Norris, professor and chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the only reason the prohibition might be an issue next year is because of the new primary date.

“It’s always been unfair. The difference is the primary is in June rather than in September,” Norris said. “There are some that are advantaged and some that are disadvantaged by rules. Short slow guys aren’t going to steal a base in baseball. … It was the General Assembly, after all, that changed the date of the primary. They knew the consequences.”

Del. Jon S. Cardin, chairman of the House election law subcommittee and in the midst of his own statewide campaign for attorney general, said the prohibition was put in place for the right reasons.

“The rationale behind the restriction is you don’t want people buying votes and influencing policy through campaign finance,” said Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat. “There is a fairness issue there. And the question is do you let everyone fundraise all the time to ameliorate the problem, do you let nobody to fundraise during the legislative session to ameliorate the problem or do you keep it the way it is and have a problem?

“When all is said and done it’s probably … as good a system as we can come up with.”

Cardin pointed out that even though a candidate like Ruppersberger could raise money during while the state legislature was in session, he couldn’t use any money in his federal campaign account, forcing him to start from square one.

Others pointed to other disadvantages inherent in the process, including Brown’s right to use Maryland State Police to move about the state as lieutenant governor — a right not afforded to legislators or local elected officials.

Barve, a lawmaker since 1991, suspected there was little reason to change campaign finance rules.

“It’s an example of unfairness that I doubt that the voters care about,” he said.