Chamber seeking reforms but with less confrontation

McCulloch successor sought, and improved ties with Glendening

Economic development

April 23, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Champe C. McCulloch's imminent departure as president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce comes as the state's leading business advocate agonizes over how to patch relations with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and still push for reforms in a state seen as less friendly to business than its neighbors.

McCulloch, president of the chamber since 1994, announced Monday that he will step down next month to join his wife in running an Annapolis lobbying firm.

"I think the chamber needs to look for someone that can work with the administration and the legislature so we can continue to improve the business environment in the state," said Drew P. Cobbs, director of the Maryland Petroleum Council and a member of the chamber's legislative committee.

McCulloch, 53, an attorney who spent 24 years with Bell Atlantic Corp. before taking the chamber helm, is credited with helping craft an economic development strategy that has largely been embraced by the Glendening administration, including a reduction in the personal income tax.

But three years ago, the chamber reportedly angered the governor by joining with two other business groups to sue him in a failed attempt to block his executive order allowing state employees to bargain collectively. McCulloch's outspoken style also apparently alienated some in the administration.

Then last year, while the chamber did not endorse anyone in the governor's race, McCulloch joined many other business leaders in backing Glendening's Republican opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Sauerbrey, who campaigned on a platform of slashing taxes and downsizing government, lost badly, and business people who backed her say they have sensed the governor's displeasure since.

"One of the things that has helped make the relationship difficult between the governor and a lot of business people is the Sauerbrey campaign," said John M. Derrick Jr., president and chief executive of Potomac Electric Power Co., and the chamber's chairman.

McCulloch defended his $1,500 donation to Sauerbrey as a matter of personal political principle. "I am a Republican, and it's pretty natural for me to support the leader of my party," he said.

Derrick praised McCulloch's leadership and noted that the chamber succeeded in achieving most of its legislative agenda in the General Assembly session that ended last week. But Derrick also suggested that the chamber may be downplaying confrontation as it seeks a new president.

"It's different now than when Champe first came in," Derrick said, recalling how Maryland was struggling to recover from a recession in the early 1990s. "The economy now is doing well. I think the chamber's emphasis will seek to build the membership."

The chamber now has 1,300 members, but Derrick maintained that, with more than 40,000 businesses in the state, it should be much larger.

That focus on internal needs worries some business advocates, who say the chamber has not been aggressive enough in arguing for a better business climate. They contend that the chamber is heavily influenced by electric utilities, which are less prone to political confrontation.

"The chamber's `don't-rock-the-boat' attitude doesn't help businesses in a state with high taxes and excessive regs," said Carolyn T. Burridge, a lobbyist for the Chemical Industry Council.

"I don't know who is going to succeed [McCulloch], but I hope it is somebody who is not wedded to the principle of making everybody happy," said James T. Brady, economic development secretary in Glendening's first term.

"I think Champe did a terrific job at the chamber," Brady added. "He moved the chamber forward in a very significant way. He took an organization that was incredibly sleepy and transformed that organization into one of significant power in terms of getting issues on the table."

The chamber alienated some Republican lawmakers last year by endorsing more than 100 incumbents in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, but legislative leaders say the group remains an effective lobby.

"At times, the chamber has been detrimentally negative in its approach, and at other times, I think it has been productively positive," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat who was endorsed by the group.

This year, for instance, the chamber did not wage a last-ditch lobbying battle to block Glendening's legislation to codify state employees' collective bargaining rights.

"Sometimes people say the Maryland chamber ought to be a cheerleader, ought to say what's great with Maryland," said Donald Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, and a former chamber president. "On the other hand, when there are tax and policy issues, most business advocates say they ought to address them head on."

Of McCulloch, Hutchinson said, "He attempted to address some of the more difficult problems."

Derrick insisted that the group would not shrink from being an advocate for business, but noted, "I think you can get more done if you're not at loggerheads."

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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