Butting heads over an ad

The Political Game

Smoking: State medical group splits with anti-tobacco lobbyist when he targets filibustering Republican senators in radio spots.

May 11, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

THE ONCE-CORDIAL alliance of a leading anti-tobacco lobbyist and the organization representing the state's physicians has gone up in smoke.

MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society, disassociated itself from the Maryland Children's Initiative last week over executive director Vincent DeMarco's decision to run radio ads criticizing five senators for their role in a filibuster against the recently enacted cigarette tax increase.

In a letter to DeMarco, the medical society called the ads "unwise and counterproductive" and demanded that MedChi's name be removed from all Maryland Children's Initiative literature.

The physician group's action came one day after Sen. Martin G. Madden, the Senate minority leader, denounced DeMarco as "a partisan mouthpiece for the Democrats" because all the targeted senators are Republicans.

Madden erupted after The Sun reported last week that DeMarco was planning an attack on Republican lawmakers over their tobacco tax votes.

DeMarco, who led the grass-roots campaign for the tax, has since said the $20,000 campaign would be confined to radio ads, not television.

MedChi's discomfort with the ad campaign is understandable, given the wide variety of issues it has before the Senate each year.

The two radio spots are not designed to win friends but to punish the leaders of the three-day filibuster that put the tax increase in jeopardy.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening succeeded in rounding up the 32 votes needed to break the filibuster, but not before accepting a compromise that pared his proposed $1 increase to 30 cents a pack.

The ads, scheduled to begin this week, accuse the five senators of turning their backs on children and doing the bidding of tobacco lobbyists.

In the Baltimore radio market, the ads single out Anne Arundel County Sen. Robert R. Neall, Harford County Sen. Nancy Jacobs and Baltimore County Sen. Andrew P. Harris.

A spot scheduled to run in Frederick zeros in on Sens. Alex X. Mooney and Timothy R. Ferguson.

DeMarco said he wanted to run ads naming a sixth filibuster leader -- Montgomery County Republican Sen. Patrick J. Hogan -- but couldn't afford the Washington radio time.

(The spots resort to some sleight of ear by dubbing in recordings of what appears to be each senator intoning "no." But Senate floor votes are cast by pushing a button -- not by roll call. The naysayers were actors, DeMarco acknowledged.)

Michael Preston, executive director of MedChi, said the organization was concerned that people would think it was behind the ads.

"Vinnie DeMarco isn't MedChi. We wanted to nip that in the bud," he said.

Preston said the medical group is not backing off its opposition to smoking but that the ads weren't in keeping with its style.

"We've got a lot of different issues to deal with. It's easy to be strident when you're a one-issue organization," Preston said.

DeMarco, a man who could find the bright side of an Internal Revenue Service audit, praised MedChi as a "great organization" and acknowledged that the medical group -- one of hundreds of organizations that supported the tobacco tax initiative -- has its agenda to pursue.

"I understood that maybe not every one of the 350 groups would agree with this strategy," DeMarco said. But he said he and the Children's Initiative board decided the public needed to know who led the filibuster.

"I consider the filibuster hardball. If there had been no filibuster, there would be no ad," he said.

Chesapeake Bay loses a persuasive lobbyist

Thomas V. Grasso, one of the most visible and effective lobbyists for environmental causes in Annapolis, has left the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for a position in Washington.

Grasso, Maryland executive director of the foundation for the past six years, will join the World Wildlife Fund's Marine Conservation Program. As senior program officer, the 36-year-old Grasso will oversee issues affecting international fisheries and the marine environment.

Maryland has come to grips with many significant issues -- from vehicle emissions to Smart Growth to reuse of contaminated industrial land -- during Grasso's tenure.

His highest-profile role came during last year's successful struggle to pass legislation controlling agricultural runoff in the wake of the 1997 Pfiesteria outbreak.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Senate's most influential environmentalist, said he was sad to see him go. The Montgomery County Democrat praised Grasso for his credibility and his ability to work with people of diverse views.

"In that job, you have to be very careful not to engage in hyperbole and to get your facts straight, because there are a lot of people gunning for you," Frosh said. "He was right a whole lot more than he was wrong."

George Chmael, the foundation's staff attorney, will serve as acting executive director until the organization names a permanent replacement -- probably by late summer.

Pub Date: 5/11/99

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