The lobbyist for a feminist organization slid into an empty chair next to me at an Annapolis nightspot last week and asked to talk. "I'd like to discuss your perceptions of news events," she said.
When I indicated more interest in my brandy and an electronic tennis game with a colleague than in her choice of topics, she grew insistent. "You ought to listen," she warned. "After all, you are a part of government."
"Me, a part of government?" I replied with a laugh. Ridiculous, I said to myself. Was she trying some kind of shock effect to get my attention? How can anyone confuse me with the folks I cover? Simply slanderous!
With a clearer mind the next morning, I began reconsidering. The Annapolis press corps may not be part of the structure here, but it is very much part of the process and greatly influences the course of events.
Legislators seem to pay the most attention to issues they know will get the most ink. Take the question of financial disclosure for public officials. Does anyone care except investigative reporters and moralistic editorial writers?
If your answer is no, why has the Senate spent hours debating the subject? Why did acting Gov. Blair Lee III and Senate President Steny H. Hoyer, both gubernatorial candidates, trip over each other with bills to tighten disclosure laws?
A news story or editorial can make or break a bill. Take the legislation to reform the state's pension system, which was headed for defeat in the Senate until the Baltimore Sun published an editorial and a column supporting the measure.
The day before a crucial vote, Sen. Edward T. Hall (R-Calvert) had more than enough votes to send the pension bill to committee for "summer study." Then the double-barrel blast by the Sun. Last week, the Senate passed the bill handily.
Legislators also know how to get a good rise out of the press corps. It has become a tradition for them to bark, hoot, meow, hee-haw and crawl on all fours whenever an anti-cruelty-to-animal bill comes to the floor.
The power of the Annapolis press corps is a simple phenomenon to explain. We provide the only lifeline to the voters back home. More importantly, we serve up a daily mirror for lawmakers to view themselves.
Almost every day here begins with remarks about the previous day's events. Buried behind their papers, the lawmakers study the columns with the intensity of a Broadway actor reading reviews.
When Baltimore Magazine published its list of "The Ten Best and Ten Worst Legislators," the article almost brought business to a full stop. It became the source of conversation on the floor and in nightspots.
While Senate President Hoyer privately bemoaned the fact that he didn't rate a mention, Sen. Hill, who was named as one of the "worst," proudly proclaimed, "This is the first list I've ever made."
This is a small world. After a short time of living here, reporters and legislators develop a sort of symbiosis. Law-makers know which reporters to approach for a "sure" story and reporters know who to see for the "right" quote.
Some legislators relish their roles. Sen. Julian L. Lapides (D-Baltimore), a gadfly liberal, once introduced himself to a new reporter. "I'm the guy you come to if you want an outrageous quote," he said.
Lapides also knows how to use a little English to get press attention. That was clear when he introduced a resolution to study the feasibility of setting up an FM classical radio station in Baltimore.
"This is really my wife's bill," he told a committee, noting that his wife likes to hear classical music when she cooks dinner. "I don't want to make this personal, but bill would save my marriage.
As the times have changed, so have relationships between news makers and news gatherers here. In the old days, reporters often lived with legislators. One Baltimore Sun reporter had been here so long that he became a clearinghouse for bills. Lawmakers would ask if he thought a bill had a chance of passing before they introduced it.
In today's post-Watergate climate, both groups go their own way.Legislators have become wary after too many stories about their after-hours revelry. Reporters try to keep that "professional distance."
The new relationship may be proper by today's standards but also less fun for both sides. The "new" legislator is a duller politician of past years.
Even the Legislative Policy Group of reform lawmakers bewailed the passing of Annapolis traditions in a ditty sung to the tune of "Old Black Joe" at the groups annual "Legislative Follies" a few weeks ago.
Gone are the days when with lobbyists we could dine.
Gone are the days when we drank'til we were blind.
Gone are the lusty playtimes we once knew.
We fear the press corps expose, their "We've caught you!"
I'm signing, I'm crying
For the fun we all once knew.
we fear the press corps expose, their "We've caught you!"
Now solemn we sit in committee meetings all day.
Now we can never take time out to play.
But we have revenge, for the press is stuck here, too.
There'll be no more press exposes cause
We've caught you.
You'll be sighing, you'll be crying
For the fun we all once knew.
There'll be no more press exposes, cause
You're stuck here, too.