Josh Kurtz: Brown-Ulman Pre-nup Dictated by State Election Law

By Josh Kurtz

Marriages are always complicated; marriages involving lots of money are usually a little more complicated.

The same is true of political marriages.

So when Anthony Brown and Ken Ulman decided to run as a ticket in 2014, we started wondering how they were going to join forces financially. As you might expect, it’s complicated in certain ways — but in other ways, it isn’t.

The sheer amount of money we’re talking about is unprecedented: Ulman as of January had $2.1 million in his campaign account, and Brown had $1.6 million. But just because a lot of money is involved, the actual process isn’t unprecedented.

It’s a little like a marriage, with each spouse maintaining separate bank accounts, even as they establish a joint account at the same time.

Every time a candidate for governor in Maryland chooses a running mate, two things happen fairly quickly: the candidate for lieutenant governor has to set up a fundraising committee of his own if he doesn’t already have one, and the campaign sets up a joint account — not unlike a slate account, which is common enough in state and local races.

“They will form a slate, for all intents and purposes,“ said Jared DeMarinis, director of the candidacy and campaign finance division at the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Unlike many other states, candidates for lieutenant governor don’t stand before voters on their own. Their fates are tied directly to the gubernatorial candidates.

Nevertheless, “while they run as a ticket, they are separate candidates for campaign finance purposes,” DeMarinis said.

But there are rules and restrictions on what the joint committee can raise, based on what the individual candidates have raised. For example, if a donor has already “maxed out” to Brown and to Ulman, she can’t contribute anything to the new joint committee. What she can give to the joint committee is dictated by what she’s already given separately to the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor.

The legislature this year imposed a cap of $24,000 on what can be transferred between slates and individual candidates, beginning in the 2018 election cycle. But that cap won’t apply to gubernatorial tickets.

This is hardly the first time a candidate for governor has chosen a running mate who already had a fundraising committee of his own. After all, Brown already had a legislative campaign account when he was tapped to be Martin O’Malley’s running mate in the 2006 cycle. Michael Steele had an all but dormant campaign account left over from his 1998 run for comptroller when he became Bob Ehrlich’s running mate in 2002. Howie Denis was a veteran state senator when he became Helen Bentley’s No. 2 in 1994.

But we’ve never seen anything on the scale of the Brown-Ulman financial alliance.

“By teaming up, they do create a very powerful fundraising entity,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, the government watchdog group.

And because he does not hold state office, Ulman, in contrast to Brown — or Brown’s rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Doug Gansler and Heather Mizeur — can continue raising money during the 90-day legislative session next year (this is also true of all the Republican candidates for governor, except for Del. Ron George). But he’ll only be able to raise it for his own campaign account, not for Brown or for their joint account. Still, it’s one of the three entities that is now dedicated to getting Brown elected governor, so that’s an undeniable advantage.

Another thing we wondered — but no one has been able to tell us yet — is whether the Ulman campaign fundraising operation will be completely merged with Brown’s. In other words, will Ulman keep using Maryland political powerhouse Susan Smith-Bauk (finance director for former Gov. Parris N. Glendening) for his fundraising? Or will Maryland’s unrivaled top fundraiser, Colleen Martin-Lauer (whose firm handles Gov. Martin O’Malley, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Brown, among many others), take over Ulman’s fundraising apparatus?

OR will Martin-Lauer and Smith-Bauk join forces, like some Justice League of America comic in which Batman and Superman team up to fight evil?

The sheer volume of money that’s going to be spent on this year’s gubernatorial election raises one additional question: Whatever happened to public financing in Maryland?

Since establishing public financing for gubernatorial races in the early 1990’s, exactly one candidate has used it: Ellen Sauerbrey in 1994.

But there’s still more than $4 million sitting in a pot for a candidate who wants to accept spending limits — currently capped at roughly $2.35 million this election cycle — in exchange for every contribution of less than $250 being matched by the state.

Because that fund is so underutilized — it has been raided for other purposes related to elections — good government groups are pressing for the state to scrap it and instead establish a pilot program for public financing for legislative races. Companion bills by Sen. Paul Pinsky (D) and Del. Jon Cardin (D) went nowhere this year, but they’re expected to try again.

Alternately, there’s the idea of trying to taking public financing down to the local level, where campaigns often raise fewer dollars and a few big donors can make a big difference. “We’re talking to elected officials pretty much in every county,” Bevan-Dangel said. So far, though, no jurisdiction has signed up to be the first.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

‘Groundhog Day’ in Montgomery County

Republicans At the Starting Gate

Gansler Hires Campaign Manager

Will 2014 Be a Republican Year Nationally — and in Maryland?

Back to the Future

Conviction Politics