Old habits die hard.
It was a few minutes before noon on Wednesday, and a handful of registered State House lobbyists were standing in front of the steps of the State House, looking for someone to talk to.
The Senate was scheduled to gavel in a few minutes later, with the House coming in at 1 p.m. Traditionally the two chambers start the legislative session at noon on the second Wednesday of January.
“I couldn’t resist,” said Eric Gally, the principal of Gally Public Affairs, an Annapolis lobbying shop. “This is my 26th or 27th year on this spot on this day.”
Another lobbyist put it this way: “We’re like lemmings,” Darrell Carrington said.
Ordinarily, they’d have plenty of company. On opening days — really, on most of the 90 days of the legislative session — dozens of lobbyists would be outside the State House, or in the building lobby, between the Senate and House chambers, greeting lawmakers and pushing their pet legislation (or begging a legislator to kill a bill).
But on the first day of a session that is going to be dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing, there wasn’t much action. The State House is sealed shut to the public — only lawmakers and a select few staff and reporters are allowed inside. Legislative office buildings are also almost entirely off-limits. In other words, there is no lobby in which to lobby.
Besides the hardy band outside the State House, there were zero advocates in sight. There were no protesters, no activists. No one was preparing for a reception later in the afternoon — usually there are a dozen on opening day alone.
And only a trickle of lawmakers passed by. Many chose to enter the State House through underground tunnels. With the House coming in later than normal, the bigger crowd of legislators, if one was ever going to materialize, would come by later.
“Just trying to social distance here,” said Leonard L. Lucchi, a lawyer and lobbyist with O’Malley Miles Nylen & Gilmore, who was showing his new colleague, Stephanie P. Anderson, the ropes — not that there was much to see.
House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) stopped by for a brief chat, but it was mostly banter, nothing substantive. That didn’t stop Gally from yelling, “Now, go get us a hundred million dollars” as Luedtke walked away.
Katie Nash, owner of the lobbying firm Energy Advocacy Maryland, said the few seconds with the few lawmakers they encountered made the vigil worthwhile.
“We say, ‘we’re working, Happy New Year, stay safe, and we’ll be here as long as you’re here,'” she said.
John Fiastro, who works with Nash on energy issues but also has his own lobbying and consulting shop, said it didn’t seem that long ago that lobbyists were standing in front of the State House figuring out how to cope with the new challenges posed by COVID-19 — even though it was 10 months ago.
“I feel like it’s the longest long weekend,” he said.
The lobbyists in front of the State House would be envious of the access one lobbyist enjoyed.
Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., the chief legislative officer to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), was literally the only well wisher in the State House rotunda as senators slowly streamed in Wednesday afternoon. He greeted lawmakers with fist- and elbow-bumps.
“It makes my job easier,” Mitchell joked, about snagging one-on-one time with lawmakers as they enter, saved from the usual jostling and maneuvering in the State House.
“This is definitely a different environment in the middle of a pandemic. It’s surreal being in this lobby on this opening day when you’re used to having it crowded,” Mitchell said, gesturing at the abundant open space. “As a representative of the governor it is our job to greet the legislators and say welcome, and we’re here to work with you and we look forward to continue working together in these strange times.”
Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.
(Disclosure: Leonard L. Lucchi serves on the board of directors of Maryland Matters.)