State needs people like Tom Lewis

July 10, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

BEFORE SENTENCING an Annapolis lobbyist a few years ago, U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz lamented what he called a culture of corruption in Annapolis.

Judge Motz was presiding over a case in which one of the legislature's premier lobbyists was accused of manufacturing a threat - and then offering himself as the man who could make the threat go away. It was like a mechanic digging an axle-cracking pothole a few blocks from his repair shop.

In the 2002 election, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. succeeded in part because he seemed anxious to change that culture.

Both Judge Motz and Mr. Ehrlich spoke of an atmosphere in which powerful insiders and big money lead to near-acceptance of bad practices. The struggle against that atmosphere goes on. But now there's a demoralizing edge to it: the culture of invective and personal attack.

That lamentable new dimension was illustrated recently when one of the General Assembly's widely respected legislative aides, Tom Lewis, was hired by the Johns Hopkins Institutions: the Johns Hopkins University and the Johns Hopkins Health System. For the last 11 years, Mr. Lewis has been chief aide for two House speakers, Michael E. Busch and Casper R. Taylor Jr. In this and other posts, he has impressed the Annapolis crowd with his competence, his depth of understanding and his civility. He is a master of procedure, which makes him a powerful person.

But Paul E. Schurick, Governor Ehrlich's director of communications, broke from his usual civility to speak of Mr. Lewis as part and parcel of the corrupt culture. Greg Massoni, the governor's press secretary, went further.

Tom Lewis, he said, should get an award for ruining "the political careers of two consecutive speakers."

This is called carrying muddy water for your boss, the governor. Their main target, one may hope, is not Mr. Lewis but Speaker Busch who remains the Ehrlich administration's nemesis. They're continuing the drumbeat of Busch-bashing occasioned by their failure to get a slot machine bill approved. The speaker's more agile opposition (and the misgivings of many legislators, including many Republicans) has stymied them. But they choose to pillory Mr. Busch, who is also pursuing an investigation of their hiring practices.

If there is any substance to their charge, it's this: cozy relationships between lawmakers at a high level and business or institutions can be unhealthy. If you are Tom Lewis you will have more access to the speaker. No doubt. Does that make the relationship corrupt? No.

Let us not be naive, though. Lawmaking has much to do with relationships, access, knowledge of the process, political campaign fund raising and the General Assembly's effort to control it all without being overly restrictive or stupid. You want informed conversation between experienced players to achieve the best result. It's all part of the mix.

But so is the human factor. Some people are willing to compromise their integrity. They have seen the big money chance and taken it: building up relationships quickly, learning how the process works and selling the expertise.

That pattern does not describe the career path of Tom Lewis. He's 48. He's worked in Annapolis for 22 years, serving speakers and legislative committees, coming back year after year of long, punishing hours of work mediating personalities and policy. He took two years off to work in the Peace Corps. He remains an utterly anonymous figure outside State Circle, and rightly so. But it's too bad those who indulge in the blanket condemnation of government have no idea who they're criticizing.

The General Assembly has seen clever people play very close to the legal and ethical lines in search of big pay days. They want to trade influence for fortune. So the General Assembly has attempted, belatedly in some cases, to shield itself from the enveloping miasma of money and power.

The process is a kaleidoscope, a constantly turning and changing organism with a life of its own. Some people will find ways to take advantage of its complexity. Some people will spin it toward the best available, most honest and public-spirited result. People like Tom Lewis.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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