Pressure is on city's chief lobbyist

Deputy mayor faces hurdles as she tries to wring funds from state

March 20, 2000|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Deputy Mayor Jeanne D. Hitchcock, Baltimore's chief lobbyist, stepped into office with the odds stacked against her.

She took the job with Mayor Martin O'Malley a month before the General Assembly session opened, with a legislative agenda that was unclear. She hasn't worked as a lobbyist in Annapolis in a decade.

With a $130,000 annual salary -- among the highest in city government -- and the high-profile title of deputy mayor for intergovernmental relations, she's raised eyebrows but sometimes has not received the respect a top aide in O'Malley's administration might expect.

Some in Annapolis have expressed a disdain for the title and others object to the salary -- in particular because Hitchcock is new to the job. But everyone agrees that, as the city's lead lobbyist, she is key to building relationships in the State House that will yield more money for Baltimore and laws that will improve city life.

"For the amount of money, she needs to deliver," said former Sen. John A. Pica Jr., who also works as a lobbyist to the General Assembly. "In time, I'm sure she will."

With the legislature adjourning next month, the pressure is on. City leaders say Baltimore is in dire need of money for drug treatment, schools, economic development, housing programs and anti-crime efforts.

The city is making gains on funding priorities such as lead paint removal, but Baltimore isn't expected to receive the kind of support it seeks, in part because former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke left office in December without establishing a legislative agenda. City officials also believe Gov. Parris N. Glendening failed to give the city sufficient financial support in his primary budget. That means Hitchcock stepped into her job with a lot of work to do, but not a lot of time to adjust.

"She's doing as well as can be expected in a new arena," said Baltimore Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

"They don't have enough people, enough people with experience. Jeanne sat for an hour in my committee waiting for a bill to be heard. That's not a good use of time."

Hoffman also criticized the city's lobbying team for not keeping up with the movement of legislation.

"I had two bills in my committee from the city, and the testimony came in late," Hoffman said.

Part of the issue is that the General Assembly has a rhythm, and anyone who plays in that arena must quickly learn to keep the beat or risk losing a bill, or millions of dollars.

The city's team -- which includes about a half-dozen people who lobby for issues ranging from housing and schools to crime and economic development -- is tracking 22 bills in the House and Senate.

"There's an incredible paper flow-- receiving the bills, reading every one, distributing them to the agencies," Hitchcock said. "There has to be an efficient flow of info so we can represent the city's interest."

O'Malley remains confident that Hitchcock can keep pace with the Annapolis crowd, and when the music stops, he said, she will have helped deliver a solid package for the city. "She can handle the pressure," O'Malley said without hesitation.

The mayor is not her only champion. She has supporters in Annapolis who say that she is worth the city's $130,000 investment because she's an aggressive advocate for Baltimore.

Rigorous schedule

Hitchcock said she starts her days as early as 7: 30 a.m. and sometimes works as late as 11 p.m. She walks the halls of state buildings, working with legislators and other state and city officials to win support for Baltimore.

She meets daily with the city's lobbying team in their "war room" at 88 State Circle -- across from the State House -- to discuss bills and political developments on issues concerning the city.

"It's time to huddle," Hitchcock told the staff on a recent Friday morning. "Everybody come on up. What's on the agenda?"

High on the list: a meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties, a Senate committee hearing on Baltimore Sen. George W. Della Jr.'s bill on liquor licenses, and preparations for an O'Malley visit to Annapolis.

Although Hitchcock has had to adjust quickly to her role, supporters in Annapolis praise her for improving an office that in the recent past did not have a strong agenda.

"She's a quick learner. She is persuasive in her arguments," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, Democratic chairman of the city Senate delegation. "Although there are some concerns about her salary, from my perspective, you get what you pay for. Right now, they're definitely getting $130,000 out of this woman."

Powerful advocate

David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said Hitchcock's experience as a trial lawyer makes her a powerful advocate for the city.

"I think she's an all-star," Bliden said. "Baltimore City has a very good team. I respect them, as do my peers."

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