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COVID-19 in Maryland Government & Politics

For Advocates and Lobbyists, a Brave New World

Lobbyists and advocates greet Dels. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery) and Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s) as they prepare to enter the State House during the last full week of the 2020 General Assembly session. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

For decades, State House advocacy in Annapolis has looked largely the same: Well-resourced entities sign up a plugged-in lobbyist ― often an ex-legislator or top-ranking former government staffer ― to plead their case, while nonprofits and activist groups rely as much on grass-roots organizing or in-house lobbyists as on high-paid hired guns.

The lobbying industry has grown exponentially and become far more remunerative and competitive in the past 20 years: Between Nov. 1, 2019 and April 30 of this year, according to the Maryland State Ethics Commission, which monitors lobbying activity, six registered State House lobbyists topped $1 million in billings; seven reported earning between $500,000 and $999,000; and another 57 earned between $100,000 and $499,000.

But with the General Assembly’s presiding officers making public and internal declarations in recent days about what the first full legislative session in the age of COVID-19 is going to look like when lawmakers return to Annapolis, advocates for corporate interests and activist groups alike are coming to grips with the idea that their daily routines are going to change drastically, at least for the three-month confab that will begin on Jan. 13.

“First and foremost, we’re telling clients that nothing’s going to be normal, nothing’s going to be usual,” said Ann Ciekot, a partner at the firm Public Policy Partners and president of the Maryland Government Relations Association. “The preparation, with the folks we’re working with, is ‘don’t make any assumptions.'”

The primary challenge to advocates of all economic strata will be access to legislators and other key decisionmakers during the 90-day session. Public access to the State House and legislative buildings will be curtailed dramatically. House and Senate floor sessions will be closed to the public, and committee hearings will be held virtually.

Gone for lobbyists will be the days of buttonholing lawmakers in the State House lobby, or flagging them down when they’re walking from their offices to daily floor sessions, or roaming the halls of the House and Senate office buildings, popping into members’ offices or picking up valuable intel.

“These ‘I just need three seconds’ conversations with lawmakers in the hallways are the foundation of what we do,” lamented Kristen Harbeson, political director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

Though floor sessions and committee meetings and voting sessions will be livestreamed, lobbyists will miss out on the opportunity to read the crowd during hearings, evaluate the lawmakers’ body language and monitor the activities of their rival lobbyists ― essential tools of the trade that they cannot practice online.

The formal wining and dining of lawmakers by special interests ― accomplished by taking committees or delegations (but not individual legislators) to dinner, or sponsoring receptions for the entire General Assembly ― will be verboten in 2021. The lawmakers themselves will not be hosting receptions for their constituents.

And while outdoor rallies aren’t expressly being banned, interest groups may not want to bring busloads of supporters to Annapolis to rally outside the State House ― and there will be no packing of committee hearing rooms with people waiting to provide testimony or show support for a particular piece of legislation.

That reality will especially require adjustments from organizations that rely on members to flex their political muscles by turning out.

“Our members do like to show up,” said Ricarra Jones, the political director at 1199SEIU, the regional health care workers’ union.

Lobbyists got a taste of the limitations they will face in 2021 during the last several days of this year’s session, which ended three weeks early due to COVID-19.

On the next-to-last week of session, the public was banned from all legislative buildings, though lobbyists could still move around freely. During the final half-week, lobbyists were also forbidden to enter the legislative complex. Several waited outside the State House at strategic moments to catch senators and delegates walking to and from their floor sessions. But it isn’t clear whether that time-honored ritual will take place during another coronavirus surge.

“In hindsight, we were taking risks that we shouldn’t have been taking,” Ciekot recalled.

What’s more, she said, if everyone is masked and keeping at a social distance, even outdoors, a lobbyist will no longer be able to whisper in a lawmaker’s ear. “If I have to resort to shouting, everybody could hear my business.”

Advocates said they are scrambling to meet ― at a social distance ― or chat by Zoom with as many lawmakers as they can before the start of session. One lobbyist tells a story of walking outside the James Senate Office Building recently, seeing a senator in an open window, and initiating a conversation on the spot.

Jones said her union members and other grass-roots activists are trying to virtually duplicate the sensation of organizing a big Annapolis rally on Zoom calls with policymakers.

“An impressive number of people participate in our virtual press conferences and rallies,” she said.

And now that lawmakers are ramping up their pre-session fundraisers after half a year of almost no money-raising activity, special interests can curry favor, as usual, with a well-timed campaign contribution.

“You are going to get access if you want,” said Sushant Sidh, a partner at the lobbying firm Capitol Strategies LLC. “Most members have been good about making themselves available.”

Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) is more likely than most of her colleagues to run into State House lobbyists during her everyday travels, due to the fact that her district takes in Annapolis. She said that while she’s open to meeting advocates and constituents outside while the weather is decent, “I’m not comfortable eating indoors so I don’t want to meet anybody indoors.”

But Ciekot said that even if lawmakers are trying to be conscientious about making themselves accessible during the weeks leading up to the legislative session and during the session itself, “there’s going to be some yet-to-be defined limit on public input” for the 90 days.

Harbeson, of Maryland LCV, said that as advocacy groups plot their strategy for the session, they are coming to realize that the lawmakers themselves will have to spend more time working their colleagues to promote their bills.

“We’ll have to rely on our sponsors to be the chief advocates for our legislation,” she said. “That’s not ideal, but we’re lucky to have so many environmental champions in the legislature.”

‘The battle of the Rolodexes’

Several advocates said they will miss the collegial atmosphere in the halls of legislative buildings ― the ability to see old friends, make new ones, and gossip.

“On a personal level, I’m going to miss the conversations, the networking, when we’re hanging out in the hallway,” said Jones.

But lobbyists and lawmakers expressed the hope that in an unexpected way, a virtual Annapolis might become more accessible to a broader swath of Marylanders than is usually the case, because individuals will be able to testify during bill hearings from the comfort of their homes.

“If there’s a way for them to be part of the process remotely, it could actually improve access,” Harbeson said.

“This is an opportunity to bridge that access divide,” Elfreth asserted.

But most well-wired lobbyists are going to have some advantages that average citizens don’t ― like lawmakers’ cell phone numbers, which will become a very valuable commodity.

“They will be at a premium,” Sidh said.

“It’s going to be a test of who has whose number,” Harbeson said. “It’s going to be the battle of the Rolodexes.”

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For Advocates and Lobbyists, a Brave New World