Josh Kurtz: As the Lobbying World Turns

I have frequently said that the one essential thing to know about Maryland political culture is that its two top-earning State House lobbyists are convicted felons. Gerard E. Evans, who took in $1,963,510 between Nov. 1, 2017, and April 30 of this year, and Bruce C. Bereano, who earned $1,900,800, are Annapolis fixtures whose long-ago convictions in federal corruption cases are largely forgotten or ignored in a world where personal relationships mean everything.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the State House lobbying corps lately, with news that one of the town’s most powerful law and lobbying firms, Alexander & Cleaver, was jolted by half a dozen high-profile defections last week. At least five of the lobbyists, led by Hannah Powers Garagiola, are forming their own shop, Compass Government Relations Partners LLC. Make no mistake: Statehouse lobbying in Maryland is very big business, and has grown exponentially – and exponentially more cutthroat – in the 20-plus years I’ve been covering the scene. Five lobbyists topped $1 million in earnings during the most recent six-month reporting period, which covered the 2018 General Assembly session. Another six earned between $500,000 and $999,999. Fifty-five earned between $100,000 and $499,999. And 47 earned between $50,000 and $99,000. That’s almost one nicely compensated lobbyist for every state lawmaker! Josh Kurtz 

In some ways, lobbying is one of the most hide-bound professions in the political realm. Relationships with the right people are golden. Pure hustle is routinely rewarded. Back slapping and back scratching is the order of the day. But the profession is changing, too. Successful firms are less vertical than they once were. They’re more integrated – not just by race, gender and age, but when it comes to skill-set and policy chops and contacts and services and strategy. More changes could be coming: After Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) won his upset victory four years ago, firms scrambled to add more Republicans. If he is reelected, could we see the advent of all-GOP firms? And how many departing lawmakers envision themselves becoming lobbyists in 2020, after the required one-year cooling off period?

There is one common thread in the Annapolis lobbying corps: Several of the top earners and practitioners have close connections to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who is finishing his 32nd year in that job. Evans, for example, is a former top staffer and very good friend. Other ex-Miller aides working as contract lobbyists: Timothy Perry ($1,172,214 earnings in the last six-month reporting period), Joseph Bryce ($477,250), Josh White ($287,833), Garagiola ($274,600) and John R. Stierhoff ($546,746). No doubt I’m omitting a few. Robert J. Garagiola ($735,958), Hannah Garagiola’s husband, was state Senate majority leader under Miller. John A. Pica Jr. ($280,135), Dennis F. Rasmussen ($218,500), P.J. Hogan ($420,048) and American Joe Miedusiewski ($345,102) are former Senate colleagues.

The lobbying corps includes wives of state senators and any number of people who have knocked around Prince George’s County politics with Miller for decades. Lobbyists in Annapolis are very powerful – more powerful, I’d argue, than their K Street counterparts. On Capitol Hill, members of Congress work full time and earn $174,000 a year. They’ve got big staffs and access to robust federal research services and other resources. Hill lobbyists are an essential part of the process, and special interest groups can certainly buy influence and the outcomes they desire. But the playing field doesn’t feel quite as imbalanced as it can at the state level. In Annapolis, the lawmakers work part time and earn shy of $45,000 a year. They have skeletal staffs. The central General Assembly staff is also small. So lobbyists matter a lot. They are often the prime sources of information for legislators on key pieces of legislation. Frequently, they find members to carry their clients’ bills for them. And the favor bank is always open. Lobbyists are also prime sources of information about state government and politics generally. That’s why their services are so valuable to their clients.

As a journalist, I’ve often thought that you could successfully cover a legislative session by just wandering the halls of the State House and legislative buildings chatting with lobbyists, rather than sitting through official proceedings. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one. Since the news of Alexander & Cleaver defections hit, the rumor mill has been churning extra fast, and I’ve gotten lots of calls and emails about what might or might not have gone down. Like so much in politics, some of these conversations have a “Rashomon”-like quality. These aren’t the first departures to hit the firm in the last few years – big names in the lobbying field such as Ivan J. Lanier, Ashlie Bagwell, Lorenzo Bellamy and Camille Fesche also have left. Yet those felt more like “that’s show biz” developments and not the sign of something deeper. People come and go all the time in the lobbying world, as A&C’s partner Gary R. Alexander himself noted in a statement last week. But these recent departures have come with threats of litigation by the firm, amid implications that some clients were poached. That’s not an everyday occurrence.

Hannah Garagiola is a canny and strategic thinker, and it’s cool that the Annapolis lobbying world adds another woman-owned firm. Those are a rarity. But this story isn’t over yet. A&C has answered the departures by bringing on Brian W. Hammock, a former CSX vice president, as managing attorney of the government relations practice. On Wednesday, the team added Barbara Zektick, a former associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties. Meantime, we don’t know if A&C is going to follow through on its legal threats against Compass Government Relations. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with Rob Garagiola, who was also at Alexander & Cleaver. It’s likely we’ll hear something about his plans soon. All this serves as a reminder of how incestuous the political world of Annapolis can be. And how very powerful and remunerative the lobbying profession has become.

It’s not a game for the faint-hearted – that’s for sure.

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