After Rep. Elijah Cummings became chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation in 2006, members of the American Salvage Association decided he needed guidance about the ways of the sea. “Congressman Cummings didn’t know what a bow or a stern was,” said Joseph Farrell, president of Resolve Marine Group Inc., a Florida-based company that provides international maritime towing, salvage and recovery services.
So Farrell began donating money to the Baltimore Democrat’s campaign and attending fundraising events for Cummings in Maryland and elsewhere. He said he was impressed by Cummings’ enthusiasm for learning about the Coast Guard and maritime regulations. “He found out what the Coast Guard was about,” Farrell said.
About 9 percent of the $608,426 in donations Cummings raised in this election cycle has come from individuals or political action committees affiliated with the sea transport industry, according to OpenSecrets.org. The website, run by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, analyzes Federal Election Commission records.
The FEC said Cummings had $819,014 on hand for his campaign as of June 30, well ahead of the six challengers for his 7th District seat, only two of whom reported raising any money for the election.
Scott James Spencer, a Libertarian, reported giving his campaign $449 and spending all but $8. Republican hopeful Frank Mirabile reported raising $900 as of June 30, the most recent reporting deadline, and having $700 on hand.
Mirabile questioned Cummings’ acceptance of donations from individuals and industry groups directly related to the business of the subcommittee he chairs. “If Elijah Cummings could stand 100 percent on his voting record, he wouldn’t need this kind of support,” said Mirabile, who owns a landscaping company in Woodbine.
But it is common for legislative committee members, particularly committee or subcommittee chairs, to get campaign funds from industry groups related to the committee’s business, said Matthew Crenson, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.
Such donations are legal as long as they are fully disclosed, Crenson said, adding that donations from industry group often give lobbyists access to members of Congress.
The real issue, Crenson said, is not an industry’s donation of funds: It is the fact that those groups often have a monopoly over industry-related information, forcing members of Congress to gain their understanding of an issue from the industry itself.
Representatives of the Cruise Lines International Association, which claims on its website to be “the world’s largest cruise association … composed of 24 of the major cruise lines serving North America,” testified twice before Cummings’ subcommittee in 2007. The organization’s political action committee donated $2,000 to Cummings’ campaign fund in 2009.
Repeated calls to many maritime industry donors, including Carnival Corp. – the vacation cruise line and Cummings’ largest donor to date during the 2010 cycle – were not returned.
The congressman has not targeted maritime industry donors, said Mike Christianson, who works for Cummings’ re-election campaign. If donors have a motivation other than just supporting the congressman, he said, the campaign does not know it.
“What people give is really something more in their minds than it is in ours,” Christianson said. “They make up their own (donation) strategies and they don’t share them (those strategies) with campaigns.”
For his part, Farrell said he still likes and respects Cummings but stopped donating to his campaign in March – not because of any maritime legislation, but because of the congressman’s position on health-care reform. When he e-mailed his displeasure, he got a personal call from Cummings 10 minutes later, he said, in which they agreed to disagree on health care.