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The choice money forces

December 04, 1998

Incumbent Del. Bruce Poole spent $79,560 in his unsuccessful attempt to win re-election to a job that pays just $29,700 a year. Del. John Donoghue spent less, but fared better, expending $40,551 to knock off Paul Muldowney. And in District 3, Alex Mooney spent more than $100,000 to defeat state Sen. John Derr. We have to wonder how much candidates will decide they have to raise in the next election.

We take some comfort in the fact that people like Chris Shank were able to prevail - without breaking the bank - by knocking on thousands of doors. But when Shank is hip-deep into the duties of office, with meetings, constituent service and all the rest, we question whether he'll be able to run the next race on shoe leather alone.

If he faces an eager rookie with time he no longer has to campaign, or an independently wealthy challenger, he may decide to turn, as Donoghue and Poole did, to political action committees. That would be unfortunate, because money is pushing Maryland state lawmakers to choose between two paths.

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Incumbent members either have to accept lots of PAC money and outspend any challengers, or become full-time lawmakers and spend six months of their last year in office beating the bushes for votes to get re-elected.

The dangers of depending on PAC money are well-known; lawmakers are only human and even the most scrupulous person can't help but feel some gratitude toward those who pay a big share of the bills.

That leaves the full-time lawmaker option. But the Maryland General Assembly has a 90-day session by design, so that its members can hold other jobs that keep them connected to the concerns of working people and business.

This is not to say that state lawmakers who choose to make it a full-time career are less effective. But when their livelihood is tied to government service, they lose the independence retained by those who make most of their cash in the private sector. That independence - and those who exercise it - could be lost unless the legislature devises a way to keep money from being the only measure of who's elected.

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