Times change, players the same

Lure of State House keeps many there, in office and out

January 30, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The old-timers say they never meant to make a living off politics, never said to themselves: "Once I get to the State House, only dynamite will get me out."

Yet, 10, 20, 30 years later, they're still in Annapolis, pushing bills, working the halls, living the legislative life.

The elected ones aren't alone in staying with the political game. Year after year, you find the same lobbyists. And every session another legislator signs on to lobby old friends.

You could go on a 10-year odyssey, and chances are most of the same crowd would be here when you returned. They might be a little grayer, a step slower. They might have let out the belt a notch or two. But they would be here.

There's power here, and money, millions of dollars in lobbying fees. There's access, the adrenal rush of being part of the in crowd, of wheeling and dealing and doing something good for the people "off campus," for the rest of the world.

"You know, the legislature is a lot like life in general. Relationships built up over the years can be very helpful," says Thomas V. Mike Miller, the longest-serving Senate president in Maryland history. "This is not rocket science, but it's quite complex, and there's a relatively long learning curve in adapting to the legislative environment."

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the Baltimore Democrat who is Senate majority leader, arrived in 1971. Judge Edgar P. Silver hasn't missed an opening day of the session since 1946. He's still around, lobbying, schmoozing, putting in a good word for Baltimore. Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's County Democrat, took office in 1967, when there were no restrooms for female legislators in the House and Senate lounges.

No political or professional disaster keeps the determined player away. Gerald J. Curran is back as a lobbyist, having spent a required year in political purgatory. His 32-year career in the House of Delegates ended in 1998 when he resigned under pressure.

That session started with the expulsion of Sen. Larry Young for ethics violations, the first such action in 201 years. Young survived. On opening day this year, he was back leading a protest.

Bereano perseveres

Bruce C. Bereano spent the 1999 legislative session lobbying by day and spending his nights at an East Baltimore halfway house to which a federal judge had sentenced him for mail fraud. This month, he was disbarred. He's still here, adding to the body of knowledge he built up over 29 years as lobbyist and aide to Senate presidents. He knows the customs of Annapolis.

"They're actually as important as the rules of procedure," he says.

No matter what happens -- expulsion, conviction, resignation or lost election -- the lobbyists and legislators almost always find their way back to this arena of familiar faces that for 90 days each year is part playground and part battleground.

"If you're good at the game, it is an addiction, because you love playing it for all it's worth and getting things done," says D. Bruce Poole, a former delegate. "There are other people who really don't see a lot of action, but they like the crab cake circuit, and that can be a very comfortable lifestyle."

Avoiding the fray

Poole spent 12 years in the House of Delegates and was House majority leader before ending up on the losing side of a power play. Even worse for him, the politics of his Washington County district shifted. The conservative Republicans back home didn't need a Democrat carrying their flag.

Now, Poole plies his legal skills in Hagerstown and is a consultant to people trying to understand the ways of the State House. He remembers the players and the benchwarmers.

"If they're down there for a period of time, they're either very good or they may be people who have simply learned how to get elected and stay out of the fray," says Poole. "You can clearly spend many tours of duty in Annapolis and never have a bomb burst near you."

Blount, sometimes called the "conscience of the Senate," says you have to put in some time and learn the rules before you can push through an agenda. It's a messy game, he says, but how else do you force open doors of opportunity that were once closed to many?

"I really don't like some of the basic tools of politics. I don't like some of the demands of politics, but you have to know how to play the game if you're going to run the race and get anything done," he says. "There is an art to legislation."

It's the art of the deal, the art of compromise, of give and take. Everybody knows the best players. They're part of the landscape. Better to bring someone out of retirement than trust a bill's fate to a lobbyist who hasn't seen his first sine die adjournment. That's why Paul Weisengoff, whose skill with racing legislation dates to the administration of Gov. Marvin Mandel, is back.

"I don't think I ever lost a bill on racing," says Weisengoff, a one-time Baltimore delegate. "Of course, I never put some through."

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