General Assembly Republicans' simmering discontent with the state Chamber of Commerce broke into an open war yesterday, as GOP lawmakers wrote a letter to Maryland companies saying the chamber has lost its credibility as a result of its closer ties with the "anti-business" Glendening administration.
The letter, signed by all but one of the Assembly's 48 Republican legislators, was released at a press conference the delegation held with Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to celebrate the White House order Saturday foiling Gov. Parris N. Glendening's attempt to impose pro-union rules on the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge construction project.
GOP lawmakers bluntly stated that the chamber, which decided to negotiate the issue with Glendening, rather than publicly denounce the so-called "project labor agreement," deserved none of the credit for blocking it.
The letter to 939 business members of the chamber is an open challenge to the strategy followed by chamber President Kathleen T. Snyder, who has worked to repair relations with the governor in the wake of her predecessor's public support for his Republican rival, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, in the 1998 election.
"Having abdicated its responsibility to publicly oppose the Glendening/Townsend administration in Annapolis, the Maryland chamber now has little credibility with the Bush administration in Washington as well as the Republican members of the state legislature," the letter says.
Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden's message to business was blunt: "If somebody wants to get a message to Republican legislators, they shouldn't rely on the chamber to deliver it."
Snyder attempted to play down the rift, which has been widening for months. "We see the Republican caucus as allies to the chamber -- always have, always will," she said.
But the anger among Republican lawmakers has become so deep that some members are refusing to deal with chamber lobbyists.
Del. Robert L. Flanagan, of Howard County, the House minority leader, said chamber representatives are now "persona non grata" in his office.
In January, Sen. Andrew P. Harris, of Baltimore County, wrote a fire-breathing letter to Snyder saying he would no longer participate in chamber-sponsored events and asking her to "inform your lobbyists that their time would be better spent with other legislators."
"If in the future, the Maryland chamber returns to its rightful purpose of advocating and voicing pro-business positions instead of pandering, I hope that you will let me know immediately," Harris wrote. "Until then, I will have to rely on those who are consistent in their actions on behalf of the Maryland business community for advice on business-related issues."
Some of the state's leading Democrats are wondering what the Republicans think they can gain by picking a fight with the state's best-known business group.
"It's a calculated risk on their part and it may also indicate some newfound frustration," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said that, as a Democrat, it was "fun" to watch the Republicans attack their own allies.
"Beating them up in public, I don't see what it accomplishes," the Baltimore lawmaker said. She said the chamber has been more effective in getting its message across to legislative leaders since adopting a less confrontational strategy.
The chamber's decision to seek better ties with Democrats was a pragmatic move to ensure that business's point of view was heard by top decision-makers.
While Republicans generally earn high rankings from business groups, they hold only 35 of 141 seats in the House of Delegates and 13 of 47 in the Senate.
"We need more than just their votes. We need other votes as well," said Snyder, who stressed that the chamber is a nonpartisan organization.
Michael E. Morrill, Glendening's spokesman, said the chamber made its feelings clear when the governor was considering the labor agreement.
Madden, the Senate minority leader, said the letter was not aimed at Snyder, whom he described as "only the messenger."
"She's not the problem. The policy adopted by the board is the problem," the Howard County senator said.
Last week, the chamber moved to put some distance between it and the governor as it issued a press release criticizing Glendening's proposed budget.
That was not enough to placate the Republicans, however. Flanagan said the chamber's criticism was "a day late and a dollar short."
The GOP blast at the chamber brought an overtone of anger to their celebration of President Bush's decision to issue an executive order banning the use of labor agreements on federal projects, including replacing the Wilson bridge over the Potomac River near Washington.
Ehrlich, whose 2nd District includes Harford County and most of Baltimore County, presented a mock check for $150 million -- representing the amount Republicans estimated that the labor agreement would add to the bridge project -- made out to "Maryland taxpayers" and signed by Bush.
"We are here ... to celebrate open and free and fair competition in the state of Maryland," he said.
In a related development, state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee that he expected a revised request for bids, shorn of the labor provisions, to go out by tomorrow.
Madden said that meant Bush's decision delayed the bridge project by less than two weeks.