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Team cemented by legislative win

March 13, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - It was late morning and Gil Genn was ready to sit down and talk about his career as a lobbyist on State Circle - almost.

The night before, he'd run into a snag with a bill he was working on for a client; the Senate had become preoccupied with a debate over funding stem cell research, and Genn's bill, now in a subcommittee, was caught up in that process. He sent a quick message on his personal digital assistant, hoping to get the issue resolved by afternoon.

His partner, Don Murphy, explained the fairly cumbersome procedure for registering with the state Ethics Commission. The paperwork, which must be filed within five days of getting a client, costs $50 per lobbyist per client to file.

But that's cheap compared to other states - in Illinois, for example, the cost is $340, Murphy said.

Some might think Genn and Murphy are an unlikely pairing; Genn, who served in the House of Delegates for 12 years, is a Democrat from Montgomery County. Murphy, who served eight years in the House, is a Republican from Baltimore County. Genn is an attorney and Murphy was a real estate consultant.

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They served together on the House Judiciary Committee, but both had opted to retire from the legislature. When Murphy left the House in 2003, he asked Genn, who became a lobbyist after his final term ended in 1999, to lobby for legalizing the use of marijuana for medical treatment.

"We had to get the bill out of the House and into the Senate," Genn recalled. "Some of the Republicans were skittish." Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario looked at them and said, "You've got your work cut out," Genn said.

"We had like three hours to turn this vote around, and we had a number of people to convince," he remembered. "We had to get two people to turn around." Just finding them in the whirl of legislative schedules was a physical challenge. Meanwhile, they were fielding calls from the White House and the Drug Enforcement Agency about the legislation itself.

"We met with the legislators and explained the bill - we explained why it was beneficial," Genn said, calling it a "nerve-racking, gut-wrenching" issue.

"We were laying our credibility on the line," he said.

But they won. And they realized they made a pretty good team. "I think that absolutely cemented it," Genn said. "We started talking shortly after that."

Having opposing political backgrounds is actually an advantage, he said.

"We sit down and debate" an issue, he said. "We come at things from different perspectives."

When they first take on a client, they set out to answer several questions: what the issues are, why a bill is needed, how they can get the client involved and how they can educate legislators on the issue.

"If legislators were smart enough to know everything, they'd be making a lot more money," Murphy quipped.

Their own experiences as legislators taught them how to deal with public officials.

"We treat the legislators as more than just votes," Genn said. In many cases, they know the legislators' families. They're aware of the myriad issues that face lawmakers every day.

Those relationships can be a little tricky, however, when Genn and Murphy are trying to kill a legislator's bill on one issue, and trying to get his vote on another, Murphy said.

Their time as legislators also taught them a thing or two about ethics.

"We have been very selective" in accepting clients, Genn said. "The most important thing down here is your credibility."

"We don't have gambling, guns or abortion," Murphy said.

As a Montgomery County legislator, Genn had worked on gun control bills while serving in the House. Because of that, he said, "it would be hard to represent Smith & Wesson."

In that respect, being former lawmakers with a record "is doubly problematic for us," Murphy said. "That limits the market for us."

Additionally, Genn said, "we absolutely will not take a client that has even an appearance of a conflict of interest with another client." Both said they knew of other lobbyists who will argue both sides of an issue, collecting fees from both clients.

Right now, Genn and Murphy are handling fewer than a dozen clients. The average fee ranges from about $25,000 to $30,000 for the legislative session. Other lobbyists have longer client lists and charge higher fees. Too many times we just sense there's a one-upmanship in compensation," Genn said. "The cause is more important than the compensation.

Regulations on lobbyists have become "stringent," Murphy said. "The only way legislators can get cover is to get tough on lobbyists." And when one lobbyist falls from grace, "we all suffer," he said.

But he said constituents still have the strongest voice with legislators - if they want it.

"If people were more politically involved, lobbyists wouldn't have the power they're perceived to have," he said.

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