Chamber of Commerce less political

State business group no longer is viewed as creature of GOP

But has it `wimped out'?

Ex-chief's support of Sauerbrey led to nonpartisan leader

January 07, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce prides itself on being the voice of the state's business community, but more than two years after a disastrous election foray, the organization is still recovering from an acute case of political laryngitis.

The chamber, which unofficially but obviously aligned itself with Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in the heady days when she appeared to be heading to victory over Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1998, lost that bet and paid the price in lost influence with a Democratic administration and General Assembly.

Champe C. McCullough, the chamber president who openly embraced Sauerbrey, became a political pariah in Annapolis and was out the door in 1999.

As the chamber heads into the 2001 legislative session, there are signs that it is finding its voice again. But under McCullough's successor, Kathleen T. Snyder, the organization is singing a far different tune - sweet to the ears of the ruling Democrats but discordant to many of its Republican allies.

Gone are the insistent cries for broad income-tax cuts and open confrontations with the Glendening administration. In their place is a modest agenda emphasizing transportation and education and a preference for negotiation over confrontation.

The change has brought charges that the chamber has "wimped out" on controversial issues, but Snyder, 49, makes no apologies. The former Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce official, who held a similar position in Alexandria, Va., before returning to Maryland, said the old ways weren't working for the organization and its 1,000 business members.

"The chamber and its board recognized we had lost our effectiveness as a lobbying organization for the business community," Snyder said. "The chamber was viewed as a very partisan Republican organization and it's not."

Snyder has underscored that her shift to a nonpartisan posture by stating that she - unlike McCullough, who contributed $1,500 to Sauerbrey's campaign - would not attend political fund-raisers or donate to candidates. The chamber has also backed away from a short-lived policy of making endorsements in legislative races.

The Glendening administration, whose relationship with the chamber, went into a serious decline after the business group sued the governor over his 1996 executive order granting state employees collective bargaining rights, has welcomed the changes.

"There's open dialog between the administration and the chamber," said Michelle Byrnie, Glendening's press secretary.

Byrnie gave much of the credit to Snyder, who worked with Glendening when he was Prince George's County executive and she was executive vice president of the Prince George's chamber.

"There's an established relationship and she's willing to work with this administration," Byrnie said.

But Snyder's approach has strained relations with GOP leaders, including Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a potential candidate for governor in 2002.

"There's clearly a perception that there's a backing-off some pro-business positions in Annapolis at the request of Parris Glendening," said the congressman from Baltimore County.

For Snyder, who was hired late in 1999, the 2001 session will be the first fair test of her strategy of building ties to the Glendening administration and the Assembly's Democrats, who dominate both houses by large margins.

Snyder said that instead of just lobbying during the session, state chamber officials have made an unprecedented effort to meet with lawmakers throughout the year in their home districts - including Democratic strongholds such as Baltimore City and Montgomery County.

"I believe those relationships have quietly improved over the past year and we need to keep working on our effectiveness as the voice of business in Annapolis," Snyder said.

One of the legislators Snyder met with recently is Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, a Montgomery County Democrat who is generally a safe liberal vote.

The veteran lawmaker, a retired businessman, said it was the first time chamber officials had met with him to sound out his views before making their agenda public.

"Before that, it was `Here it is, take it or leave it,' " he said. "Now I'm more willing to listen to what they have to say."

While the chamber has not officially backed off its support for tax cuts, officials left little doubt that the issue is on a back burner with the heat turned off. Snyder even indicated that the chamber could support some tax increases as part of a solution to the state's transportation funding problems.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he welcomes the chamber's more "realistic" and less "confrontational" approach.

"It's gratifying for me to see that there are so many unmet needs in the area of transportation and education," said the Cumberland Democrat. "You can't have it both ways in the sense of meeting expensive unmet needs but unwilling to raise the revenue to do it."

But what Democrats view as reason is seen by some Republicans as close to treason.

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