Debate on dirty word: 'lobbyist'

Democrats portray Ehrlich as close to business

experts say the tactic could backfire

  • Lobbyists wait outside the State House to talk to Maryland lawmakers. “The word ‘lobbyistÂ’ is poisonous with the voters,” says Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Lobbyists wait outside the State House to talk to Maryland lawmakers.… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
April 04, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Democrats in Maryland, worried about a punishing election-year climate, want voters thinking of something more damning than "incumbent" when they go to the polls.

Their preferred enemy: the lobbyist.

The strategy became clear last week when former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. confirmed that he wants to unseat Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley. The message from O'Malley's campaign: Voters will have a choice between a sitting governor who made tough decisions in a down economy and an ousted opponent turned high-priced lobbyist for corporate interests.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he has seen a similar tactic deployed across the country because "the word 'lobbyist' is poisonous with the voters."

"The very idea of it conjures up special favors and bribery and dirty tricks," he said. "It's not a fair image, obviously, but try convincing voters of that."

But there's a flaw in the Democrats' argument. Ehrlich is not exactly a lobbyist.

Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, the North Carolina law firm that has employed him for three years, lists Ehrlich as a government affairs specialist - typically a fancy way of saying lobbyist - and says on its Web site that his Maryland team "has the access to ensure that our clients' interests are represented in legislative debates at the state, local and federal levels."

Ehrlich is not registered as a lobbyist at the state or federal levels, however, and said he does not meet with his former colleagues in Congress or the State House to push legislation. None of the 21 other employees in Womble's Baltimore office lobbies either, he said.

Instead, Ehrlich calls himself a "rainmaker" hired to be "the face of the firm." His daily duties, he said, include "speeches, coffees, dinners, lunches, meetings."

He has not disclosed his earnings, which registered lobbyists in Annapolis and Washington are required to do under disclosure laws.

Henry Fawell, Ehrlich's longtime spokesman who works with him at Womble, said the former governor's job is to "utilize his network of contacts in the private sector to bring new clients to the firm." In other words, Fawell said, after Ehrlich gets a client in the door, another Womble employee - typically someone based in Washington - takes over the account.

A "sample client list" for the Baltimore office, provided by Fawell, includes medical companies, banks and builders. Among them: A&G Pharmaceutical, Precision Antibodies, SunTrust Bank, Brown Advisory, Dustin Construction and Canam Steel Corp. Citing attorney-client privilege, Ehrlich and others in the office have declined to describe the nature of the work.

Baltimore developer David S. Cordish hired Womble last year to help with community relations as he pushed for a state license and local zoning to build a casino in Anne Arundel County, but Ehrlich said he did not work on the project and the relationship is now over. Womble was also retained to work with BAA Maryland, which manages concessions at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

To call Ehrlich a "big-spending politician turned special-interest lobbyist," as O'Malley campaign manager Tom Russell did last week when the former governor said he is running, "is not just wrong, it's willfully misleading," Fawell said.

Travis Tazelaar, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, acknowledges he has no evidence that Ehrlich has been lobbying, but argued that "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's gotta be a duck." He called Ehrlich's description of his work at Womble "murky" and "shady."

Added Isaac Salazar, the state Democratic Party's spokesman: "Ehrlich was a member of Congress. There are lots of phone calls he can make. It's hard to believe his activity stopped once a client came in the door."

"If he would answer our questions and tell us what's going on, maybe we wouldn't have any reason to call him a lobbyist," Tazelaar said.

Democrats are doing more than making polite inquiries.

Last week, the Maryland Democratic Party released what it said were the results of a poll of 400 Republican voters, testing arguments about Ehrlich's record and recent activities. The survey asked, for example, if voters' attitudes would change if they knew that "Bob Ehrlich has spent the last three years working as a lobbyist for state contractors, gaming interests and foreign governments like China." Thirty-one percent of Republicans surveyed said yes, according to the Democrats.

Party officials have also filed formal complaints about the intersection of Ehrlich's campaign, his work at Womble and his media appearances, including his weekly talk show on WBAL radio. Last week, they submitted to the FCC Ehrlich's on-air objections to new taxes on medical devices levied in the national health care reform bill. The Democrats called his words "payola," noting that Womble represents companies that manufacture the devices.

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