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Josh Kurtz: A legislative session and a political culture awash in special interest money

A view of the State House on the final day of the 2023 General Assembly session. Photo by William F. Zorzi.

It was an emotional highlight of the 2023 General Assembly session.

Men and women of all ages and races were in tears as historians and legal experts recounted the early career of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and some of his successful — and heartbreakingly unsuccessful — battles to desegregate Maryland.

They were gathered for the unveiling of Marshall’s portrait in January outside the hearing room of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), the panel’s chair, movingly described his desire to display a portrait of the young Marshall in the anteroom outside where the committee meets, because he wanted Marylanders of color to see someone who looked like them when they came to testify.

All the other portraits outside the hearing room are of important white people, one dating back to Maryland’s colonial era. The painter, Ernest Shaw, who, like Smith, is Black, was equally poignant as he discussed making the picture of Marshall as a young lawyer — and his desire not to let the civil rights icon down.

But the printed program for the unveiling showed another, less seemly side of Annapolis: The portrait was paid for in part by donations from lawyers, lobbyists, powerbrokers and other special interests that might have business before the Judicial Proceedings Committee or other legislative panels: Ballard Spahr LLP; Gallagher Evelin’s & Jones; Gordon Fineblatt LLC; Pica & Associates PA LLC; Mark Puente; Shapiro Advisors; Southway Builders Charitable Trust; Zucker Spaeder LLP; and BGE/Exelon Community Grant, among others. Several current and former politicians were also on the donor list.

A newly-unveiled portrait of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, by the artist Ernest Shaw. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

A few weeks later, a just-as-moving and even more historic event took place on the State House steps: The swearing in of Wes Moore (D), the first Black governor in Maryland and just the third elected in the nation, who took office alongside his trailblazing lieutenant governor, Aruna Miller, the first Indian-American, the first woman of color and the first immigrant to hold that office. More tears of joy and pride were shed across all races on that golden afternoon, and thousands swarmed to the Moore-Miller inaugural celebration in Baltimore that evening — an event wholly subsidized, to the tune of about $4.6 million, by corporations, law firms, lobbyists and other special interests.

To be clear, every governor in the modern era has raised corporate money for their inaugural ceremonies. This is just the second time the public has been able to examine those fundraising records. Four years ago, former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) took in about $1.6 million for his inaugural celebration.

Moore’s take is otherworldly in comparison. But it’s been clear since he won the Democratic primary that big-moneyed interests have been anxious to throw big contributions his way. To the victor goes the spoils, and all that.

And so it went throughout the 90-day legislative session, with ostentatious displays of money and political might in our faces every day that lawmakers were in Annapolis, and after-hours, too. With COVID-19 just a few inches away from our rear-view mirrors, the 2023 session more closely resembled the bacchanalia of the before-times, with a full dance card of receptions, committee dinners and other corporate-sponsored events available to lawmakers every single night. On Sine Die alone, there were at least 13 receptions on tap for lawmakers and the broader political community, with free booze at just about every one.

Annapolis’ full army of highly compensated lobbyists also came out of the woodwork after three years of texting and Zooming, putting their own stilted and sometimes unsavory stamp on the people’s business. A dramatic TV series on the Maryland General Assembly might be titled, “What Comes Out of the Shadows?”

A quick look at the 2023 legislative work product might spotlight some of the progressive measures that got through, like expanding reproductive rights, transgender health equity, gun control, an accelerated $15-an-hour minimum wage, easier access to civil redress for sex abuse victims, and more progress fighting climate change. But it’ll still take a while to sift through the legislative detritus to fully know what fell by the wayside this session, like indexing the minimum wage to inflation or making corporations pay their fair share of taxes or requiring more transparency from the state’s monopoly electric utilities. The most successful lobbyists in Annapolis, it’s often said, are the ones who can kill legislation.

Lobbying firms keep landing current and former legislators, who know the game as well as anyone. Ex-lawmakers are, of course, entitled to make a living, and advancing to a lobbying shop is a well-worn path in politics — far more common on Capitol Hill than it is in the State House. Still, each new turn in the revolving door should make us all a little queasier.

And speaking of turning, let’s turn now to some of the stealthier and late-breaking legislative battles, like the push for a new scheme to prop up and redevelop Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park race track, and the whole bleeding horse racing industry. Did anyone properly vet this deal and were citizens informed and involved at all?

Racing has been a lobbypalooza for at least a generation in Annapolis and one of the many examples of corporate welfare in the state of Maryland. And there, as legislative committees held hearings in the final weeks of the session on this proposal, was Bill Cole, a former legislator, former Baltimore City Council member, former economic development director for the city, current member of the Maryland Stadium Authority, wearing hats of undetermined origin, as he has variously been the guy negotiating race track deals for the city, or a general sage, or the partner in a development company, headed by former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D), that seems to be doing everything, everywhere, all at once.

Finally, there was the last-minute fracas over the management of the Maryland Stadium Authority, with legislators adding two seats to the board — one going to Prince George’s County, to match the seat that Baltimore City has long held, and the other going to the governor, who already makes most of the appointments. Moore was reportedly worried that giving an appointment to Prince George’s would create an even number of board seats, potentially leading to deadlock and worse, possibly bollixing up any deal the administration tries to make to keep the Orioles in Baltimore.

People kept asking us, why are you devoting so much ink to this? The answer is simple: Because this is an early clue to the new direction. John Angelos is simultaneously expressing fealty to Baltimore and crying poverty. Or is it the other way around? Either way, it’s Maryland taxpayers who are liable to be on the hook for any arrangement to keep the O’s in town.

Our new governor imagines himself a change agent, and in some obvious ways, he is. But until he is willing to confront the business-as-usual culture in Maryland politics, call us skeptical.

As for legislative Republicans, who increasingly eat up floor time, especially in the House, to chant MAGA bromides, perhaps it’s time to dispense with feel-good rants about trans health and Communist China and parental rights, which are destined to go nowhere in a legislature with Democratic supermajorities, and attempt to shine a light on the clubby and corrosive practices that continue to define Annapolis.

Not to be the skunk at the garden party or anything…


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Josh Kurtz: A legislative session and a political culture awash in special interest money