Analysis: Another Sign of Change in Annapolis

The Maryland State House historic entrance. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended Maryland and the state’s political scene in incalculable ways, Annapolis had gone through enormous changes in the past year.

The most obvious examples are the new presiding officers in each chamber of the General Assembly — House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City).

But there have been other significant changes as well — from a new chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to new legislative priorities and dynamics to new key staffers for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R).

The rapid rate of change continued apace this week with the announcement that one of the most venerable lobbying firms in Annapolis, Alexander & Cleaver, would be closing up shop.

On Friday, the firm’s director of government relations, Barbara Zektick, announced that she was buying the assets of Alexander & Cleaver’s lobbying business and splitting off the government affairs practice from the law firm. She’s renaming the firm Z&C, LLC and taking A&C’s existing lobbying clients and government affairs team — Davion Percy, Richard Reinhardt and Shannon Gahs — along with her.

Zektick is closing up the firm’s historic office on State Circle, a house that Katharine Hepburn once reportedly slept in. The firm will temporarily be housed in downtown Baltimore until new office space can be found in Annapolis.

“We bring tremendous relationships at the state and local level to the table and this is certainly something that will be valuable to Z&C’s clients,” Zektick said in a statement. “But the real value of our firm — the differentiator in many cases — is that our practice is about more than our Rolodexes.”

Tracking the developments in the increasingly remunerative and cutthroat world of Annapolis lobbying seems like an insider’s game at first glance. But in fact the lobbying business says a lot about the state of Maryland politics, the shifting power centers in the capital, and broader trends in the world of political persuasion.

Alexander & Cleaver was an old-school firm and one of the first to truly take off in the Annapolis lobbying game. Gary Alexander himself was a former member of the House of Delegates who rose to the position of speaker pro tem — and was one of the very first lawmakers to cash in on his legislative expertise by becoming a lobbyist. For years, he and James Cleaver, who headed the legal side of the business from Prince George’s County, presided over one of the top earning lobbying firms in Maryland.

A&C in recent years became entangled in some unpleasant legal business, after two of the firm’s top lobbyists, Hannah Powers Garagiola and her husband, former state Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola (D), started their own lobbying shop and took a few colleagues with him. Already Alexander & Cleaver had lost a few other top-flight lobbyists over the past few years.

Some of the litigation remains ongoing. But Zektick, who has also worked for the Baltimore mayor’s office, the Maryland Transportation Department and the Maryland Association of Counties, clearly saw a good deal, acquiring what she could from the firm’s remains and banking on her own reputation and those of her colleagues.

The Miller factor

One undeniable truth about lobbying in Annapolis is that many of the top lobbyists in town have close and bankable ties to former Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who gave up the job last fall after 33 years.

The roster of top-earning lobbyists who have worked for or with Miller is truly dizzying: former top aides of his like Gerard E. Evans, John Stierhoff, Tim Perry, Josh White, and Joseph C. Bryce. Former state senators like Patrick J. Hogan and Dennis Rasmussen. Spouses of former senators like Pamela Kasemeyer and Marta Harting. Another former aide, Caitlin McDonough.

Hannah Garagiola is herself a former Miller staffer and Rob Garagiola was Miller’s hand-picked majority leader for a time. Lobbyists for government agencies, like Melanie Wenger, another ex-Miller aide, and former Sens. James Mathias and Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, are also part of Miller’s orbit.

Yet another former aide, Tyler C. Patton, does lobbying work as vice president of the Maryland Broadband Cooperative. Patrick Murray, another top Miller staffer, used to do lobbying work and is now chief of staff to Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D).

Gary Alexander himself once represented the same legislative district as Miller.

None of these people has lost their ability or their wealth of contacts just because Miller now is diminished, with the ceremonial title of Senate president emeritus. But there will be a reordering of sorts in the Annapolis lobbying community over the next few years.

For as long as he’s working — and few lobbyists work harder — there will always be a place for the old school back-slapping style of Bruce C. Bereano, the original million-dollar Annapolis lobbyist. But he’s a solo practitioner and his ways are fading.

These days, many lobbying shops also have public relations, political and grass-roots components to their portfolios. Old-time practitioners, like Evans and Alan M. Rifkin, are grooming the next generation to take over their firms.

Increasingly, firms that do “white hat” work, representing nonprofits rather than corporate entities, are thriving. And before too long, firms will be looking for players with especially close ties to Ferguson and Jones. It’s the way the lobbying world works, on K Street in Washington, D.C., and in all 50 state capitals.

Zektick acknowledged the changes herself.

“Our team is innovative,” she said. “We are dogged. Our biggest successes have been the result of collaborative and nuanced policy work that gets legislators and clients where they need to be. This often means less time rubbing elbows on boats and more time in the conference room. But we’ll take it.”

Alexander and Cleaver — the men, not the firm — sounded almost wistful about passing the torch.

“I’m excited and optimistic for Barbara and her team,” Cleaver said. “We’ve put decades of heart and soul into this practice – something I know she will nurture and grow with all the strength and fortitude she brought to Alexander & Cleaver.”

In the grand scheme of things, the disappearance of Alexander & Cleaver may seem like a small development, especially in the middle of one of the most tense and intense weeks of news that anyone can remember. But Annapolis is changing in truth and symbolically, and here is just another reminder.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.