That is how one watchdog group describes the role certain local developers are playing in trying to influence some local races in the upcoming election.
Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Jennifer Bevan-Dangel said her organization views the flow of money from a select group of developers into campaign coffers as a “huge problem,” especially at the local level.
“Local governments have the ultimate authority on zoning issues,” Bevan-Dangal said. “The problem is many people don’t pay attention to such issues because they are not exciting to talk about, but the impact can be severe.
“Money doesn’t buy votes, but it buys a level of access and influence the average person doesn’t have. That is something that needs to change.”
Baltimore County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins said she is concerned such influence has entered her bid for reelection. She is the incumbent representing the 6th District, which includes much of Middle River, Essex and parts of Parkville.
A major portion of her district includes the new Route 43 expansion, which connects Middle River to White Marsh. Adjacent to that road is the 55-acre Middle River Depot. The property was purchased by Mexico-based businessman Alberto Saba and New York developers Joey Aini and Jack Avita in 2007 for $37.5 million – then a record for an online government auction.
After a year of seeking community input, Bevins voted in 2012 to zone the property, located off Eastern Boulevard across from Martin State Airport, for mixed use as part of the county’s Comprehensive Zoning Mapping Process.
“I did not hear one negative word from residents over wanting to develop the depot, which has become an eyesore in the community for years,” Bevins said. “That vote was all about bringing jobs and economic development to the area.”
Zoning votes trigger fight
But, Bevins said that vote angered owners of the nearby Carroll Island Shopping Center, the Cordish Company. Bevins said Cordish expressed their concern that Walmart, which anchors the shopping center, would be shuttered in favor of a larger supercenter built along Route 43.
“Walmart wants to replace older stores with supercenters,” Bevins said. “If they don’t do it here, they will build it somewhere else. My goal is to keep them in the area. The only ones against developing the depot is Cordish.”
In the nearly two years since the zoning vote, Bevins has dealt with numerous challenges to the project. Those included a petition drive – backed in part by Cordish – to have the zoning votes placed on a referendum. That effort was thrown out under a court challenge.
According to campaign finance reports, LLCs with ties to Cordish are the primary financial backer of Bevins primary opponent, Jeff Beard.
Those campaign finance reports reveal, Beard received $60,000 in donations broken down into 15 individual $4,000 donations coming from various LLCs based at 601 E. Pratt St. – the headquarters of The Cordish Company. Another $40,000 is tied to LLCs or entities associated with the Towson-based Continental Realty.
According to current Maryland state campaign finance laws, “a person may contribute directly or indirectly no more than $4,000 to one political committee and $10,000 over a four-year election cycle.”
However, many in the state have used the “LLC loophole” to get around the law.
That loophole is supposed to be closed for the next election cycle, after the General Assembly passed legislation during the 2013 session, said Jared DeMarinis, director of the candidacy and campaign finance division of the Maryland Board of Elections.
The new law for the next election cycle will treat LLCs as one entity when it comes to campaign donations if one person(s) owns 80 percent of it. However, Bevan-Dangel said a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling could impact that loophole closure.
In that ruling, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the High Court ruled that aggregate contribution limits are invalid under the First Amendment. This means campaign donors can contribute the maximum donations allowed under state law to as many candidates as they wish to support, DeMarinis said.
“The $10,000 limit is still on the books, but the Supreme Court ruling makes it unenforceable,” DeMarinis said.
The Cordish Company declined to comment on the issue by the publication time of this article.
Beard, 55, who placed a distant fourth in his 2010 bid for the House of Delegates in 2010, said he was approached by a group of area businessmen about running against Bevins.
The Middle River native and Shop Chairman of the Bargaining Committee of UAW Local 239 said while nearly all of his campaign contributions came from a few developers, he would not be beholden to anyone should he be elected.
“I made it perfectly clear to those seeking to support me that I would vote what is best for the residents of the 6th District and Baltimore County, not what is best for a developer,” Beard said. “I will not be
bought. Those that are backing my campaign only expect me to do the right thing and ensure an economic impact study is done regarding the depot.
“If Walmart is allowed to build a supercenter on Route 43, the Carroll Island store would become vacant and that shopping center would die,” Beard said. “All the Middle River Depot would do was shift jobs from one section of Middle River to another.”
Bevins responded that she encourages others to challenge her in the primary, but is angered how a few developers may be trying to buy an election.
“How dare a few wealthy developers come in here and try to overturn the will of the people just because a zoning vote didn’t go their way,” Bevins said.
Bob Bendler is the president of the Essex Middle River Civic Council, an umbrella group for 19 community associations in the area. He declined to comment on campaign contributions, but stressed that Bevins’ vote during the CZMP reflected the will of area residents.
“Mixed use is what the community has always wanted for the Middle River Depot,” Bendler said. “We don’t want to see anything happen to the Carroll Island Shopping Center, but Walmart appears to want to move no matter what. That is a decision that will be based on what the market wants.”
Foundry Row impact
Councilwoman Vicki Almond says she can relate to Bevins’ battles.
The Reisterstown Democrat said she has experienced a similar backlash from some developers on the west side of Baltimore County. Almond has been a key supporter of Foundry Row , a $140 million, 50-acre development to be anchored by a Wegmans and located on the site of the former Solo Cup plant in Owings Mills.
Foundry Row opponents, which also included a group of residents, business owners, developers and elected officials, have cited concerns over traffic, as well as environmental issues and negative economic impact on area businesses.
Among those opposed to Foundry Row was Caves Valley Partners, who Almond said were concerned that Foundry Row would hurt their interests in the county.
“Some developers didn’t like how I voted and now they are targeting me and getting others who once supported me to distance themselves from me,” Almond said. “That’s OK. I truly believe I voted with what the community wanted and that was to bring jobs to the area and ensure the Solo Cup plant site didn’t sit dormant.”
According to campaign finance reports in January, seven donors with ties to Caves Valley donated a combined $23,000 to A Better Baltimore County, a political fund founded by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. Kamenetz’s campaign also transferred more than $100,000 to the slate.
According to state campaign finance laws, a slate fund has no limits on the amount of money it can funnel to affiliated candidates. Jon Herbst, a Democrat challenging Almond in the primary and who has been endorsed by Kamenetz, is listed as an affiliate candidate of the Better Baltimore County slate fund.
Among those that donated to the fund are Caves Valley executives Craig Colton and Arsh Miriman, along with David Brown Adler, the son of Caves Valley Executive Arthur Adler. Each made a $4,000 contribution. The fund took in an additional $14,000 between January and May with donations tied to several developers, including Caves Valley.
Herbst, a Pikesville native who ran against Almond as a Republican in 2010, said his campaign finance reports show that most of his contributions come from friends, family and small business owners, along with some developers.
He added that A Better Baltimore County’s most recent finance report shows that in January the fund transferred $90,000 out of its account and onto a fund for Friends of John Olszewski Sr. Olszewski, a councilman for the 7th District, is not seeking reelection. Olszewski can use those funds to help support any number of candidates.
However, when it comes to a slate committee, they are not required to reveal which candidates’ expenditures benefit, according to state finance laws. Among the expenditures made by the slate over the last reporting period were $16,307.51 for consulting and phone service to Fontaine and Company and $12,000 to OpinionWorks for polling. The slate reported having $2,265.39 of cash on hand.
“While I have remained positive throughout my campaign and have tried to focus on the issues, the incumbent councilperson has recently stooped to negative personal attacks, accusing me of being beholden to ‘special interests’ for accepting campaign contributions from developers,” Herbst said.
“I find this to be an extremely hypocritical argument for my opponent to make. Councilwoman Almond accepted over $50,000 in campaign contributions from employees and associates of one developer immediately before and after she fast-tracked their project… And that’s why we need a new kind of leadership for the 2nd District.”
The developer Herbst is referring to is Greenberg Gibbons, who is responsible for Foundry Row. Almond said she never accepted donations from
the developer during the comprehensive zoning map process, and had also received donations from Caves Valley when she initially ran for office in 2010.
“Caves Valley backed me four years ago and they thought that meant I would always vote in their favor,” Almond said. “When that didn’t happen, they reached out to another candidate.”
Almond’s handling of the Foundry Row issue is one reason state Sen. Bobby Zirkin endorsed Herbst in the primary. Almond served as Zirkin’s chief of staff and was one of his biggest supporters early in his political career. He also backed her in 2010.
Zirkin said his concerns run far deeper than Foundry Row, a project he says he supports.
A Pikesville Democrat, Zirkin said he has deep concerns about traffic and the impact Foundry Row can have on nearby developments such as the Metro Centre and the Owings Mills Mall, the latter of which is virtually vacant and in need of redevelopment.
“This shouldn’t be about choosing one developer over another,” Zirkin said. “The way this has been handled by all elected officials involved in this process along with the developers has been disappointing.
The legal challenges, the accusations going back and forth and the lack of communication has been unprecedented and not in the best interest of the county.”
Brian Gibbons, Greenberg Gibbons CEO and chairman, said he has never seen backlash like this from competing developers in his 30 years in the business. He said Almond would not back his project until she was ensured it was supported by the community.
Gibbons added that he’s very concerned about the steps some developers are taking to finance certain candidates they deem favorable to their agenda.
“There are a couple of folks out there that are not happy and are doing all they can to unseat certain candidates,” Gibbons said. “I support [Almond] because of the leadership she showed during the CZMP process.
“Money doesn’t win elections; good candidates do. [Bankrolling] a candidate like this is certainly not something I would do. Steps like that are not good for the development community and shine a negative light on everyone.”
Change is needed
Donald Engel is also concerned about the role developers can play in elections. The Democrat is running for House of Delegates in District 11, which includes much of Pikesville and Owings Mills.
“Who can blame developers for taking a hardline approach?” Engel said. “The system is set up to allow that to happen. Although it might be easier, I’ve tried to run more of a grass roots campaign and would rather have lots of small contributions from many people instead of being beholden to a small group of people through much larger contributions.”
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College, said while donations such as those made in Beard’s campaign “don’t violate the letter of the law, they violate the spirit of it.”
“What this shows is that Maryland’s campaign finance laws are full of holes,” Eberly said. “You would think that with Maryland being a ‘progressive’ state that there would be tighter campaign finance laws, but that isn’t the case.
“When you have one party that dominates like the Democrats do in Maryland, there is little will to change the laws. In the end, whatever party is in power, they will do whatever they can to stay in power. When you control the game, you control the rules.”
Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University, said groups have a First Amendment right to get their message out, there is concern about a small group of people wielding financial influence to supersede the will of the majority.
“Having more money is a benefit, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it can buy you an election,” Vatz said. “But, money does go a long way in helping you get your message out to the masses.”