State House to frat house

Dan Rodricks

February 07, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

All politics might be local but, in Maryland, if you're a lobbyist for companies that make cigarettes, you'd much rather wage your battle in Annapolis.

First of all, you know Annapolis. As a matter of fact, you might have gone there once as an elected official, way back when the world was young and you were not yet jaded.

Second, you know all the restaurants, hotels and other schmoozeries. You know how to schmooze the schmoes, having been schmoozed yourself once. Third -- and this might be the most important reason -- all your pals are in Annapolis, including the president of the Senate. The atmosphere of the General Assembly is that of a great frat house, and once you pledge, they never kick you out.

So, if you lobby for the tobacco industry, you want to do your lobbying in Annapolis. That way, you stand a much better chance at keeping the nation's leading cancer state in smoke.

Of course, only a few years ago lobbyists for the tobacco industry were telling the General Assembly just the opposite.

They argued that the legislature shouldn't be passing a uniform state law to restrict smoking. Maryland is a diverse state, they said, and what Montgomery County considered a fair smoking restriction might not fly in Calvert or Worcester. Leave it to the locals to decide whether to pass their own ordinances, the tobacconists argued.

So that's what happened. The tobacco lobbyists persuaded the delegates and senators to leave the battle over smoking to Baltimore and the counties.

But before too long, the anti-smoking mob was scoring hits everywhere.

Those pesky counties came up with ordinances and policies to ban smoking in public places, starting with their own municipal buildings and courthouses. Some counties banned smoking in retail stores. Some ordered restaurants to offer smoking and non-smoking areas in their dining rooms. In some counties, there was voluntary compliance with government-backed smoking restrictions.

Even the governor established smoking policies for state office buildings.

And, as we all know, there has been a positive national trend away from smoking, as the public wises up to the well-established health risks. Today, the American Cancer Society estimates that 6,800 people a day leave the ranks of smokers.

Some quit. Some die. Either way, those 6,800 are customers, and the tobacco industry is having a fit about losing them.

So, failing to beat smoking restrictions in the counties, the tobacco lobby is back in Annapolis. They want to shift the battle back to the State House. And why not? Lobbyists practically own the place.

This year, they're out with a bill that would have the state pre-empt the counties from enacting further local controls on smoking.

And they've got the president of the Senate, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., on their side. What a guy, that Mike.

Getting Miller to back the bill was considered a coup de schmooze.

It was a former state senator, Cathy Riley, now representing Philip Morris, who gets credit for getting Mike's ear -- not to mention his mouth. Apparently she can get Mike to say just about anything.

The other day, when asked why he introduced the tobacco industry's bill, Mike spoke in the beautiful blah-blah-blah of Annapolis. The bill, he said, would "promote uniformity throughout the state." Which was a pretty way of saying he was doing a stand-up for his old pals. What a guy, that Mike.

Dennis McCoy was happy that Mike complied with the "industry's request" to introduce the bill. Denny is a former state delegate, another schmoozee who became a schmoozer, and he now makes the car payments by working for something called the Smokeless Tobacco Council.

Also weighing in was Bruce "He's Everywhere! He's Everywhere!" Bereano, representing the noble-sounding Tobacco Institute. Bruce is the highest-paid lobbyist in Annapolis; you can look it up. Have retainer, will travel. He's the one who says the state's anti-smoking campaign is a waste of money.

So all these palookas will fight attempts to discourage people from smoking. So what do you expect? They're lobbyists. They get paid lots of money to say the foolish, hackneyed, hypocritical things they say. They get paid to take positions that are obnoxious. And Mike Miller, he helps them.

What a guy, that Mike.

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