Making Their Case
Jan 14, 2014 10:36AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
They call it Lawyer’s Mall, the cobblestone square that sits across from the State House steps. There every morning that the legislature is in session from January to April, lobbyists hang out hoping to catch the eye or ear of lawmakers as they make their way to the chambers.
Some prefer the lobby itself outside the back doors of the House and Senate chambers, and others walk the halls of the office buildings and hearing rooms. Most do all of the above.
The public image of lobbying or “government relations” has little to do with the intimate people business of the lobbying trade. There are no smoke-filled rooms anymore, though an occasional lobbyist lights up a cigar.
Dramatic changesBruce Bereano, who’s been lobbying since 1979, says “the changes have been dramatic” in not only the range of issues that state government handles, but in the number of lobbyists trying to influence policy. When he started after serving as chief of staff for a Senate president—a post a number of top lobbyists have held—Bereano remembers maybe half a dozen lobbyists. In 2012, there were 740 registered with the State Ethics Commission and 148 registered lobbyists making more than $50,000 a year. They grossed $39 million in 2012.
Those include hired guns who represent multiple clients in many fields, and people who work for a single company or organization, prorating a portion of their salaries based on the amount of time they work with the legislature.
Businesses big and small spend a lot to protect and advance their interests. Gambling interests shelled out $9.3 million on lobbying in 2012, with every major player having a lobbyist or two or three. In 2013, health care and hospitals replaced the casino operators as the top spenders.
Not the standard profileLisa Harris Jones does not fit the standard profile of an Annapolis lobbyist, where white men still dominate the top earnings. Just seven years out of law school and after practicing with two Baltimore firms, this petite, 30-something, African American woman opened her own lobbying shop in 2000.
“I started with only one client,” the Minority Contractors Association, Harris Jones recalls. “It took a lot of work and a lot of time” and there was an early presumption “that I could only talk to women and black legislators.”
Starting out small, “I learned to lobby without the dinners,” she says. Lobbyists are no longer allowed to buy drinks or dinner for individual legislators. But they can invite the whole General Assembly, its committees and local delegations to fancy soirees. They funneled $1.9 million to Annapolis restaurateurs and caterers for 360 such events in 2012.
Now she and her firm, which includes former O’Malley legislative aide Sean Malone as a principal (and now her husband), rank in the top 10 for billings.
“The average person does not know what a lobbyist does,” Harris Jones concedes. She has a simple explanation for those who don’t: “You wouldn’t go in front of any other branch of government without an attorney, so why would go in front of the legislature without one?”
Home-grown firmHarris Jones’ firm has grown to nine professionals, but she also shares clients with other firms, like Manis Canning & Associates, now headed by Nick Manis, a hometown Annapolis boy. The firm was founded by Nick’s father, George, 40 years ago and Mike Canning, a former chief of staff to Gov. Harry Hughes. Manis recognizes that lobbyists are not among the most well-respected professions, but “I think the elected officials think we have a role. It’s basically a sales business, like any other type of sales business,” Manis says. “I do whatever I need to promote my client’s point of view.”
Sometimes clients have single issues, and sometimes there is work on multiple fronts. Sometimes clients want something done for them, but oftimes they want to prevent something being done to them.
Government lobbyistsThere are scores of lobbyists who don’t have to register with the state or file their earnings report because they work for state agencies, county governments, and municipalities. Alan Friedman had been one of them, a lawyer handling government relations for the Anne Arundel County government. Before that he was chief legislative representative for Gov. Bob Ehrlich.
“There are literally dozens of issues that impact county budgets and county services,” Friedman says. “Some are major like the state budget” and others are smaller issues that affect how the county operates, such as the Public Information Act.
“We certainly don’t have the big dinners and big receptions” to wine and dine the lawmakers, but “we have a very unique special interest” representing the same people the legislators do, Friedman says.
Anne Arundel County has a special advantage as it lobbies the local delegates and senators since they include House Speaker Busch of Annapolis, and his Senate counterpart, John Astle, vice chairman of the Finance Committee, along with Sen. Ed DeGrange, chairman of the capital budget committee. “We’re very fortunate in Anne Arundel County to have that kind of seniority,” Friedman says. “It’s incredibly important.”
Regardless of clout or party-label, “every legislator has a name on the board and a light,” Friedman says. “All you’re looking for is an ear and opportunity to make your case.”
Demystifying the processBarbara Marx Brocato, like Manis, is one of the few native Annapolitans in the lobbying business. Her father Buddy Marx was a Main Street dry good merchant, “but his passion was politics.”
Her early work as a social worker put her in touch with people with disabilities, and after an unsuccessful bid for the House of Delegates in the 1970s, she began lobbying for disabilities groups and then become the first government relations person at the state Department of Budget and Management. Her current clients include a disabilities provider, textbook publishers, elder law attorneys, and different groups of doctors.
“I want to help demystify the process,” Brocato says. “I want people to feel that it does make a difference if they involve themselves.”
“In order to be a successful lobbyist you must be an honest broker,” she says, and help clients understand legislators. “The only way I spent some 30 years around the State House is I believe in the process and I’m optimistic about it. It is a lot of frustration but, by and large, it works.” Part of the work of a lobbyist is helping lawmakers understand the consequences of legislation being proposed, particularly in health care, and “raise issues that they otherwise wouldn’t think about.” This will be especially true as the Affordable Care Act is implemented, and stakeholders grapple with what it will take to provide care to an expanded population.
“What are the implications for patients in a new environment?” is among the issues that legislators and Brocato’s clients will be dealing with, she says.
But whatever the issues, it is important to “make good connections that work for the elected officials,” to understand their personal concerns and their constituents, and to be a resource to them.
Shifting the playing fieldIn her 28-year career representing just a handful of clients, Ellen Valentino says, “The playing field with the lobbying profession has gone through a significant transition. The public is more aware of what policymakers are saying and debating” because of the Internet.
The public can now listen and watch hearings and debates in real time over the Internet, and these are archived for replay, as well. “There’s a new accountability on a lobbyist to be reputable, fair and held to high standards,” Valentino says. Most important, “lobbyists and legislators can fact-check in real time.”
Before this Internet access, “the full debate didn’t travel back to a legislator’s district” and all constituents would hear was the lawmaker’s version of events. “It was very insular; what happened in those hearing rooms stayed in those hearing rooms,” Valentino says. Now, there’s been “an evolution of the outside game” and it provides “ the benefit of having the public stand with you on an issue” through email and Internet.
“To have constituents call lawmakers will always out-merit a visit from a well-connected lobbyist,” says Valentino, who represents and also manages the Beverage Association for soft-drink dealers and the Maryland chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Throwback to pre-Internet daysBereano is a throwback to an earlier era and he’ll have nothing to do with this Internet stuff. He doesn’t use email—his staff prints it out. He does have a cell phone, but he doesn’t use voicemail or texting. And for all of his 34 years in lobbying, he’s operated solo. “My mind is a Blackberry,” he says. “I’ve never been comfortable using machines.”
“The foundations of lobbying are personal relationships; all of us have unique individualized relationship with other human beings,” Bereano says. Those personal relationships, “a deep and broad set of friends,” were what helped him get through that rough patch in the 1990s when he stood convicted of mail fraud in federal court. “I learned a great deal about myself,” he says. “I was very focused and patient.”
“Virtually all my clients stayed with me; they persisted,” Bereano said. “What keeps me going is I love people. I don’t play golf. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke,” says Bereano, who represents tobacco interests. “I get such enjoyment out of people, personalities. I’ve never felt the need to feel good from something artificial.”
There’s nothing artificial about the $790,000 Bereano brought in 2012.
Len Lazarick is the editor and publisher of MarylandReporter.com, the news site for state government and politics.