Chasing a powerful committee chairman up the State House steps, Lee Cowen is one of dozens of lobbyists hoping to impart a few persuasive words before the Maryland General Assembly convenes. But in the world of Annapolis politics, Cowen is a rare breed indeed: He is a proud member of the Republican Party.
Until this year, that's a designation most lobbyists might have kept a closely held secret. But on the heels of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s ascension to power as Maryland's first GOP governor in almost four decades, the label is now a lucrative symbol of the most valuable commodity a lobbyist can offer: access.
Cowen is part of a tiny but growing group of Republican newcomers to Annapolis who have followed the congressman-turned-governor from Capitol Hill with high hopes of cashing in on Ehrlich's electoral success. Boasting ties to the national GOP, they are interlopers in the highly insular world of a lobbying corps long dominated by Democrats.
"Now you've got a true bipartisan town, and while the client base might not have changed much, people may decide that they need to augment their representation with real friends of the administration," said David Albert, who set up a lobbying shop after Ehrlich's win. "I'm not shy about saying that -- it's the way the game is played -- and I have a phenomenal relationship with Governor Ehrlich."
Put aside such hot-button legislative fights as abortion and gun control that tend to dominate news headlines. In Annapolis, as in state capitals across the nation, a huge percentage of lawmakers' time is devoted to the business of business. A five-word amendment can make or break an industry. One line in a budget can mean millions to a state contractor.
From positions of relative anonymity, lobbyists can reshape state policy, reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees in the process.
Albert, though new to town, said he had little trouble finding clients. He co-chaired President Bush's Maryland fundraising effort with Ehrlich's close adviser and chief money raiser Richard Hug, and he managed the GOP's unsuccessful 1998 gubernatorial campaign in Maryland.
Maximus, a private company that has been paid $42 million over the past three years to collect child support for the state, saw Albert's potential. This year, the company teamed him up with Bruce C. Bereano, one of the few veteran lobbyists who openly supported Ehrlich during the fall campaign.
Among the high-ranking state employees dismissed by Ehrlich early in his administration was one who had criticized Maximus's performance. The company's state contract is set to expire June 30, and the future of the privatization program is in doubt, but a bill that recently passed the House would ensure that child support collections would continue to be farmed out to the private sector.
At its most basic, lobbying is a persuasion business that depends on relationships with those in power. Those who are perceived as having close ties to the governor and his top aides will be in high demand. That's not to say that Democratic lobbyists will be out of jobs; their party still dominates the House of Delegates and the Senate.
But as the old guard scrambles to build bridges to the administration -- "Bobby and I go way back" is a common refrain heard around Annapolis these days -- veteran lobbyists also must spend time developing relationships with new Democratic lawmakers. One of every three delegates is a freshman, and one-quarter of the Senate is new.
"It's fun to watch," said Carolyn Burridge, one of the few GOP lobbyists in Annapolis before this year. "A lot of these Democratic firms don't know what to do."
Some are teaming up with the Republican interlopers. Cowen, for instance, is working a life insurance issue with powerhouse Democratic lobbyist Laurence Levitan.
As he dashes back to his office overlooking the stately grounds of the capitol, Cowen's olive green trench coat whips out behind him. At 38, with his balding head covered by a Borsalino hat banded in leather and his New Balance hiking boots peeking out from underneath suit pants, Cowen is part Ari Fleischer, part Indiana Jones. His manner is unassuming, but his GOP pedigree is among the purest in town.
His firm, Chesapeake Government Relations, is the brainchild of Scott Reed, Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign manager and a well-connected Republican who provides state government consulting services across the country. Wayne Berman, who served in President George H.W. Bush's administration and advised the second President Bush's transition team, is also a partner.
On the brand-new shelves behind Cowen's desk sits an Ehrlich-for-governor baseball cap. At the ready is a videotape copy of a campaign commercial in which Cowen's wife starred as a "Democrat for Ehrlich." When Berman asked Ehrlich who should anchor the day-to-day operations of the new Annapolis firm, the governor and his aides didn't hesitate to recommend Cowen, a former congressional staffer and federal lobbyist who knew Ehrlich from his four terms on the Hill.
During a 10:30 conference call one morning, Reed and Cowen discussed a pitch they will make to Ehrlich's budget secretary on behalf of a company looking for state contracts. Next up was a strategy session on adding clients to their fledgling firm's list.
"I'd like to see us get one of the big labor clients," Reed said. "I think it's something that's politically important. Ehrlich and his team will want to reach out and build some bridges there."
Such talk is enough to send big Democratic firms into fits. Word spread quickly when Cowen picked off a longtime health care client with a contract to provide Medicaid services from veteran Democratic lobbyist John Stierhoff.
Such stories sadden Bill Pitcher, a Democratic lobbyist who went out on a limb to support Ehrlich and has seen his business pick up as a result. Still, he said he hopes the trend doesn't catch on.
"This isn't like Washington, where you need to hire a Republican lobbyist on one issue and a Democratic lobbyist on another," he said. "Maybe that's where we are heading, but thank God we haven't gotten to that point yet."