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Out-of-county fundraisers: Bad behavior, or a sign of influence?

October 01, 2006

Something like 15 years ago, a Maryland delegate was stricken on the floor of the House, and needed to be rushed to the hospital.

Ever the caring individual, Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, shepherded the temporarily indisposed delegate into a waiting ambulance and stayed with him in his hospital room until he was certain his colleague would be all right.

Needless to say, both delegates were absent for a number of roll call votes on the floor - mundane, rubber-stamp votes that only really mattered in the sense that lawmakers like to go home and tell their constituents that they were present for 99 percent of the votes on the floor.

It looks bad if you miss a number of votes.

Donoghue, of course, was noted as absent on the votes he missed. The hospitalized delegate, however, was in the habit of wedging a paper clip into the green voting button so his votes would be automatically recorded on these housekeeping matters without the bother of repeated button-pushing. So while Donoghue's voting record was damaged by his generosity, the man he helped, technically, never missed a vote.

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It was ever thus for Donoghue, the Rodney Dangerfield of the delegation. In a legislative world of work horses and show horses, Donoghue - much like U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes - is a work horse, eschewing the show-horse tactic of posturing on sexy, high-profile issues in favor of doing all the necessary, behind-the-scenes grunt work that pays few political rewards.

So Donoghue could be excused for figuring it was just business as usual when he was attacked this week by Washington County Republicans and his opponent, former Del. Paul Muldowney, for benefiting from a pricey Annapolis fundraiser that they said was attended by well-heeled lobbyists. Donoghue characterized the guests as mostly "health-care professionals," but either way these participants doubtless have business before the state.

Do Muldowney and his fellow Republicans have a point? Absolutely. In fact, if the national GOP were as indignant toward money-politics as the local members of the breed, Jack Abramoff would not be a household name today.

And yes, where you raise your money matters. Big money from outside the area means that a lawmaker is likely to be more beholden to outside forces than he is to his own people. If they wish to expand upon this, the local GOP could use one Sen. Alex Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, as an example - although there is a chance they may choose not to do so.

All lawmakers will tell you, yes, we get favors from lobbyists, but it does not affect in the least how we vote.

Someone needs to tell the lobbyists this, because it means they've been throwing away millions and millions of dollars all these years. If spending money on lawmakers doesn't do them any good, then there is no point in this continued waste.

The fact is, they spend money on lawmakers because it works. You can be clean as a whistle and still be influenced by the people who give you money.

At the very least, you will be more likely to give your big donors an audience, at the expense of a local constituent who can't afford to give a dime.

And this is probably where the local GOP has its best point. Donoghue has been criticized for his failure to adequately represent on local issues - criticism that has even come from City Hall, from members of his own party. He has not taken leadership roles in areas that are crying out for it, such as sewer capacity, the hospital dispute and highway projects.

When big players with interests in big state issues start contributing big cash, it's all too easy to start connecting the dots. One doubts that too many of these contributors have much concern about Hagerstown sewer-plant capacity.

Still, the GOP footing on this issue is not entirely firm.

Special interests don't waste much time on lawmakers who do not matter. The fact that they would court Donoghue's influence in Annapolis means that he has influence in Annapolis. The same cannot be said for Washington County's Republican delegates.

Are the Republicans telling us that if a group of prominent Annapolis insiders offered to throw any of our other delegates a $10,000 party, that they would proudly stand up and say "no thanks?" That stretches the imagination.

Republicans can, with reason, hold Donoghue's feet to the fire for swimming with the sharks. But when they do, they are also pointing out in a good strong light how little the local delegates in their own party matter. No one cares about courting their influence because they - being minority-party members from a rural area - don't have much.

Muldowney's chore is to argue that he can do both: Represent on a local level, while being a player at the state level. He's been around the block enough that it would be foolish to assume that he can't pull it off.

But if he does, those same big, special interests that are now knocking at Donoghue's door will be knocking at Muldowney's. And if they do, will local Republicans still be inclined to believe that dancing with the state's power brokers is such a terrible thing?

Or will they point to it as an achievement of someone whose opinion in Annapolis is a valuable and sought-after commodity?

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