Big money – the large donations that come from corporations, PACs, and wealthy individuals – dominate current Baltimore politics. Due to the high cost of campaigning, people who want to run for office need to raise as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. As a result, the people and corporations that can write big checks are in the driver’s seat. These big money donors influence which candidates can afford to run for office, what issues make it onto the agenda, and often who ends up winning elections. And many times, the interests of wealthy donors don’t represent the interests of people who don’t have the same access to big money, which often can include people of color, women, young people, and immigrants.
Fortunately, in 2020, Baltimore City finalized the Fair Election Fund with goals to reduce the influence of large and corporate donors, reduce the impact of wealth as a determinant for running for office, increase engagement in the political process, promote accountability among elected officials, and strengthen public control of local government. The new program will be in effect for the 2024 elections for Mayor, Council President, Comptroller, and City Council.
This report looks at the 2020 mayoral race and documents the scope of the problem that a fully funded and functional Fair Election Fund would address, underscoring the importance of the program. We find that big money donors dominated Baltimore City’s most recent mayoral elections. Even worse, most of the big money donors who contributed to Baltimore City mayoral campaigns weren’t residents of Baltimore City. This dangerous dynamic diminishes the voices of Baltimoreans in their own elections, discourages civic participation and could have long lasting impacts on public policy.
This report analyzes the contributions received and expenditures made by Baltimore City’s mayoral candidates during the 2020 elections. Our review of the data shows that:
1. Access to wealth is generally a prerequisite to running a competitive mayoral campaign. On average, competitive candidates spent over one million dollars each over the course of the election.
2. Large contributions, which most people cannot afford to make, play an outsized role in Baltimore’s elections for mayor. Contributions of $150 or more made up 96% of the money raised in the mayoral election, despite only representing just over a third of contributions made in the mayoral race.
3. Campaign contributors are not representative of the people living in Baltimore. More than 80% of the money contributed to Baltimore’s mayoral race came from entities that aren’t people living in Baltimore, such as corporations, PACs, or out-of-city or out-of-state donors.
The small donor public campaign financing program that will be in effect in 2024 can help address these issues.
These programs provide candidates for office with limited matching funds if they agree to only accept contributions from small donors and meet qualifying thresholds for money raised and donors reached. Montgomery County used a similar small donor program in 2018, and found that it increased small donor participation, reduced the influence of large donors, and enabled candidates to run for and win office without having to rely on large and corporate donors.
Baltimore City passed legislation to implement a Fair Election Fund, and it was signed by the Mayor in January 2020. Now it is up to the current Mayor and Baltimore City Council to establish the City’s Fair Election Commission and allocate funding to the Fair Election Fund.
State Director, Maryland PIRG Foundation
Emily directs strategy, organizational development, research, communications and legislative advocacy for Maryland PIRG. Recently, Emily helped win small donor public financing in Montgomery and Howard counties, and the Maryland Keep Antibiotics Effective Act to protect public health by restricting the use of antibiotics on Maryland farms. Emily also serves on the Executive Committees of the Maryland Fair Elections Coalition and the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics Working, and the Steering Committees for the Maryland Pesticide Action Network and Marylanders for Open Government. Emily lives in Baltimore with her husband and dog.