ANNAPOLIS XDB — ANNAPOLIS -- Bruce C. Bereano, the highest-paid lobbyist in Annapolis, looked around the party and saw that it was good.
There were tables groaning with hot dogs, pizza and tacos. Off to the side, a band played Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill." On the wooden dance floor, colored lights winked at his guests, many of whom had donned leather jackets and poodle skirts like castaways from the "Happy Days" sitcom.
They were having fun -- these dozens of state legislators and lobbyists -- and that was important to Mr. Bereano and his co-host, cigarette maker Philip Morris U.S.A.
Their Fifties Valentine's Day dance at the swank Loews Annapolis Hotel proved that even in a recession, special interest groups are managing to meet and greet, and wine and dine the men and women who make the laws that affect them.
Although few are as lavish as the $17,500 Valentine's Day extravaganza, scores of lobbying groups collectively spend tens of thousands of dollars every year on breakfast, lunch, or dinner-time receptions for the General Assembly's 188 members.
Groups ranging from chemical makers to horse breeders to liquor distillers have scheduled 120-odd receptions during this year's 90-day General Assembly session.
"There are so many receptions now you can't attend a quarter of them," said Del. Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore, who serves as the House protocol chairman.
True, hard times have forced some groups to scale back -- scrapping the band or maybe the raw bar. And a dozen or so have canceled their events altogether.
But the reception in one form or another remains a fact of political life here.
Personally, Mr. Davis said, he prefers low-key meetings with senior citizens' groups to fancy parties with corporate types. "I enjoy those receptions most where you get to talk to people, instead of suits," he said.
Suit or no suit, interest groups say they rarely discuss bills at these events, and legislators insist they never let a crab ball or a cocktail influence how they vote.
So what's the mutual attraction?
Most seem to think it's access.
Interest groups say a legislator is more likely to return their calls and listen to their views if the lawmaker has met them first in a pleasant environment.
"If [legislators] are going to vote against one of my clients, I want them to think of a person's name and face rather than just an organization," said lobbyist Dennis C. McCoy, whose clients include Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, horse breeders and contractors. "There certainly isn't going to be any legislator who's influenced on a vote because he went for a hot dog and a cold drink with the XYZ corporation," he added.
Legislators say they go to meet folks from their districts who want to discuss issues. Cynics, however, say those folks also represent potential campaign contributions.
"I try to hit all of these because there's almost always someone from your district who took the time to come down here," said Del. Martin G. Madden, R-Howard, as he lingered between the bar and the raw veggies at a reception.
Mr. Madden and others that night flocked to the Governor Calvert House, a posh hotel in the shadow of the State House, to meet their host, the Cable Television Association of Maryland, Delaware and D.C.
The legislature is considering taxing cable television, and the industry wants to make sure the lawmakers have all the facts, said Stephen A. Burch, an association vice chairman.
Like boys and girls at a middle school dance, however, the legislators and people representing interest groups tended to spend most of the time talking to their own kind, rather than mixing. "You may meet some people from the organization, but primarily I talk to other legislators, people who aren't in your committee that you don't have time to see," said Del. Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Carroll.
Lobbyists who don't like receptions say that's why they advise against them. "I generally tell people not to do it. I think they're a waste of money," said Jay Schwartz, who lobbies for insurance agents, soft drink companies and bars and taverns, among others.
Some groups say the recession has given them the extra incentive to retool their reception strategies.
The University of Maryland at College Park decided that lobbying most effectively during this session of fiscal discontent meant not partying at all.
Groups that don't have appearance problems but do lack power and money can still compete successfully for a spot on legislators' party schedules.
A group of licensed practical nurses, for example, is holding a low-cost, down-home reception next month in the House of Delegates office building, Mr. Bereano said.