Lobbyists make their knowledgeable presence known

March 13, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - Ulysses S. Grant, so the legend goes, coined the term to describe the favor seekers who gathered in the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington to seek an audience with the general-turned-president, who frequently held court in the hotel's public rooms.

That's the Willard's story, anyway, and despite evidence that the word "lobbyist" was in use well before the Grant administration, it's sticking to it.

These days, however, lobbyists do a lot more than hang out at the Willard.

And they're frequently subjected to more derisive terms than President Grant used - "hired gun" being one of the nicer ones.

But state legislators say lobbyists play an important role in government and do a lot of the grunt work in researching proposed legislation that elected officials just don't have time to do themselves.


Here's why: In this year's 90-day session, the Maryland House of Delegates will process nearly 2,000 legislative proposals. The state Senate will process more than 1,000 more. Then each body will vote on the bills that survive the other chamber.

That's a lot of topics to digest, and there are only 24 hours in a day.

"We need lobbyists," said Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany. "They have a way of streamlining many of the issues for the client."

"On most issues you deal with the facts, but there are times when the information coming from both sides is anecdotal," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington. "Sometimes you have to delve a little more into the issue to find the absolute truth." In those cases, "I think lobbyists serve a very important purpose," he said. "They provide very valuable information we can't all be experts down here; there are areas of specialization."

A successful lobbyist's research isn't confined just to an issue; the lobbyist must research the legislature as well - knowing which lawmakers are friends, which are foes, which are riding the fence and can be persuaded. Lobbyists spend more than a little time counting votes. They go to bill hearings. They frequently testify. They work long days.

But they still do a fair amount of "hanging around." A small crowd of lobbyists generally hovers in the main Statehouse corridor as delegates and senators scurry to their respective chambers; they seize on a chance meeting in an elevator or mingle with legislators in the hospitality room at the Governor Calvert House. A conversation here, a note there can make a difference in the final outcome.

This year, the Greater Hagerstown Committee, along with the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation and the Washington County Commissioners, enlisted the aid of lobbyist Mike Johansen of the firm Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver to press for money for improvements to the Edgewood Drive-Dual Highway intersection, a homeland security grant for the county's communication system, money to upgrade local water and sewer plants, and to protect the county's charitable gaming activities from encroachment by the state.

"What Johansen did a wonderful job of was being a facilitator," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington. "He got them in to see (Ways and Means Committee Chairman) Sheila Hixson and (Del.) Barbara Frush," as well as other state officials, so members of those organizations could argue for their agenda in person.

Up close and personal

"Don likes to say 'you must be present to win,'" said lobbyist Gil Genn, a former state delegate who, with his partner, former Del. Don Murphy, operates an office within blocks of the Capitol in Annapolis.

Among their clients are physicians' groups who have been fighting for reform of the state's medical malpractice laws. The doctors knew what the problems were, but faced a significant learning curve for dealing with public officials.

"Those doctors had very little knowledge of the process," Genn said. "We have to acclimate (clients) to the buildings, the tunnels (connecting government buildings around State Circle)."

And they have to teach them to how to lobby.

"Once we're comfortable with an issue, we get our clients in front of the people who make decisions. If we do the legwork ahead of time, the legislators understand better," Genn said.

"When our clients are able to be here, they're in front," said Murphy.

Genn said that's because personal contact between the client and the lawmakers is paramount. Rather than doing all the talking themselves, "we felt it was important to get the doctors involved," he said. "If you're not seen, you're a non-entity. The most important thing is to be seen, and the doctors had the perfect mechanism to be seen" - white coats.

Consequently, legislators last year found the Statehouse swarming with physicians in white coats. As medical malpractice bills were debated, there were white coats everywhere they looked.

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