When John Stierhoff retired this month as top aide to the president of the Maryland Senate, legislators gave him a standing ovation. Two hours later, he left the State House with a double Rolodex the size of a toolbox -- filled with contacts he developed during his career in government.
Then he walked two blocks to his new law firm, Dukes Evans Rozner Brown & Stierhoff, to begin his job as a lobbyist. Among his duties: trying to influence many of the legislators who had just given him such a rousing send-off.
Mr. Stierhoff's quick transformation from public servant to hired gun is not unusual in Maryland government. In fact, it is pretty common these days.
He is one of at least a half-dozen state officials who are cashing in on their public experience this year to help private interests get their way in Annapolis. They include Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, former House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. and former Speaker Pro Tem Gary R. Alexander.
Maryland's longest-serving legislator, retiring Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., said he has never seen a better connected group of public officials switch sides during his 48 years in the State House.
Moving from the legislature to lobbying raises few eyebrows in the insular world of Maryland government. Lawmakers often view it as a logical career move.
To many outside the legislature, however, Maryland's revolving door tradition only blurs the line between public servant and professional advocate, while reinforcing people's distrust of a system over which they generally feel they have less and less influence.
"Our democracy requires that people believe that issues are decided in an impartial and fair manner," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, the self-proclaimed citizens' lobby. A revolving-door legislator "reinforces the perception that it is an insider's game -- and it is."
Top state officials trading public experience for private gain is nothing new in Maryland politics. Examples include former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who returned to the State House several years ago to help a Rhode Island company win the state's lucrative lottery contract and later helped doctors lobby the issue of health care reform.
Like most states, Maryland has no law prohibiting former public officials from becoming lobbyists. Nineteen states have one- or two-year lobbying bans for some elected officials and public employees in an attempt to cool off chummy relations. The federal government prohibits former congressmen from lobbying their colleagues for a year.
During the last legislative session, Del. D. Bruce Poole put in a bill to require a two-year waiting period for Maryland legislators, but it was rejected.
"A lot of people want to protect their own interests and have an escape hatch," said Mr. Poole, explaining his proposal's demise.
Delegate Poole, a Washington County Democrat, doesn't fault legislators for becoming lobbyists, but thinks the speed with which they often do so only adds to their image problem.
"Outside the institution, the perception is we're just too clubby," he said.
Public officials defend the practice as a private career decision. Mr. Steinberg -- who, like many lobbyists, is an attorney -- said he has a right to earn a living as he chooses.
"Why should I be denied an opportunity to practice my law and profession?" asked Mr. Steinberg, a Baltimore County Democrat who lost his bid for the party's gubernatorial nomination earlier this year.
Mr. Steinberg will lobby and work on business and corporate law for a firm whose clients include Pimlico and Laurel racetracks and the Ryland Group, a homebuilding company.
A senator's 'dream'
Baltimore state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski sees his transition from gubernatorial candidate to managing director of a public relations and lobbying firm as a natural progression. As a candidate, he wrote some of his own commercials and helped produce campaign television spots.
"My dream is to be able to get into the advertising and media side of the whole thing," said Mr. Miedusiewski, who was telling Marylanders as recently as September that he wanted to be their governor.
In his new role, Mr. Miedusiewski said he might use some of his legislative experience in the health care field to represent medical workers.
Mr. Alexander, who held the second highest ranking job in the House of Delegates until his resignation this fall, points out that .. lobbyists have an important role in educating lawmakers on issues.
He also said he does not feel uncomfortable using the skills and knowledge he learned on the public payroll to benefit clients.
"People gain experience from everything they do in life," said Mr. Alexander, a Prince George's County Democrat. "I don't know what you can do with your experience other than impart it to others."
As people's counsel in the 1970s, Mr. Alexander represented consumers' interests against utilities. Now, he will represent Bell Atlantic's interests in Annapolis.