In sign of the times, lawyer with quiet style becomes top-paid lobbyist


In the back-slapping world of Annapolis lobbying, Alan M. Rifkin tries to cut a different figure. He battles shyness, doesn't entertain much and says that playing politics is not his strength.

In other words, he's almost the opposite of Bruce C. Bereano, the man from whom he recently took the title as the state's top-paid lobbyist.

In his heyday, Mr. Bereano dropped almost $250 a day wining, dining and entertaining legislators at restaurants, parties and sports events. Mr. Rifkin averages just $17 a day, making him the lobbyist equivalent of a cheap date.

While Mr. Bereano is gregarious and loud, a big man with a personality that could fill a room, the lanky Mr. Rifkin is quiet, reserved, almost studious.

That Mr. Rifkin, 38, is the top-earning lobbyist of the 1995 legislative session is, his friends say, a tribute to hard work and a style that is more in tune with the times.

In the wake of a lobbying scandal and changing public perception, legislators are less comfortable with the lavish entertaining and in-your-face aggressiveness of some lobbyists.

"It's better to be heard and not seen, and to take a low-key approach and keep it very professional," said Gary R. Alexander, a former state legislator who became a lobbyist last year. "In a lot of respects, he fits into that new mold."

During this year's session, Mr. Rifkin applied his quiet powers of persuasion to advance the financial interests of 38 clients, including hospitals, a pipeline company, horse tracks, an automotive trade association and the Baltimore Orioles.

On behalf of car leasing companies, he pushed legislation that will eliminate a double tax Marylanders pay on long-term leased vehicles -- a change that could triple business for those companies. For rental car companies, he helped persuade the legislature to continue a tax credit worth $4 million to $6 million a year to them.

For the state's thoroughbred racing tracks, he fought efforts to bring casino gambling to Maryland. Although the casino efforts stalled, political observers expect the proposal to return with force next year.

"I think he's very effective," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat. "Alan has always been straightforward with me."

Mr. Rifkin's ascension is in part a result of Mr. Bereano's fall. A mail fraud conviction last year sent his earnings into a nose dive.

A partner in the law firm of Rifkin, Livingston & Silver, Mr. Rifkin earned $481,900 from his lobbying clients during the six-month period that included the legislative session.

Unlike Mr. Bereano -- who at times earned more than $700,000 for six months' work -- Mr. Rifkin is not way ahead of the pack in earnings. The No. 2 lobbyist, Gerard E. Evans, is just $33,000 behind him.

Steinberg protege

The son of a Baltimore television engineer and a teacher, Mr. Rifkin cut his political teeth under the guidance of former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg.

While a freshman at Loyola College, he landed a job as an intern clerk for Mr. Steinberg, his state senator and a man on his way up the leadership ladder in the State House. The senator picked him up at his parents' home in Randallstown and drove him to Annapolis every day -- very heady stuff for an 18-year-old. "He was like a kid brother to me," said Mr. Steinberg, a Democrat.

The "kid" wanted to be a lawyer like Mr. Steinberg. He graduated from the University of Maryland law school in 1982 and joined the Baltimore law firm of Semmes, Bowen and Semmes. Two years later, he took what he thought was a temporary leave of absence to become chief aide to Mr. Steinberg, who by then was Senate president.

But the state's savings and loan crisis erupted, and Mr. Rifkin stayed with his mentor. He worked on the successful Schaefer-Steinberg gubernatorial campaign and then became the chief legislative officer for Gov. William Donald Schaefer. He was only 29.

During the administration's maiden legislative session, Mr. Rifkin and Lieutenant Governor Steinberg won passage of 29 of the governor's 31 bills, an ambitious package that included funding for a new baseball stadium for Baltimore.

Within a year Mr. Rifkin announced he was leaving to set up shop with Mr. Bereano, a partnership that created a sensation in Annapolis. With Mr. Bereano's experience and Mr. Rifkin's connection to the governor, the team promised to be a powerhouse.

But Mr. Steinberg talked his protege into staying for another legislative session. Mr. Rifkin eventually left to become a partner in another law and lobbying firm. Three Fortune 500 companies quickly hired him to represent them in Annapolis, where he would trade on his expertise and relationships.

As often happens in Annapolis, Mr. Rifkin before long found himself at odds with his one-time friend and almost partner, Mr. Bereano. They represented rival companies involved in a no-holds-barred battle for a lucrative state lottery contract five years ago.

It was a study in hardball lobbying, complete with accusations and protests. Mr. Bereano's client, GTECH Corp., emerged the winner. The celebration, however, was short-lived as federal investigators began probing the contract and Mr. Bereano. Authorities found nothing illegal with the contract, but they did indict and convict Mr. Bereano on unrelated mail fraud charges.

There are those who blame Mr. Rifkin for Mr. Bereano's legal troubles, a responsibility he strenuously denies.

During the gubernatorial campaign last summer, Mr. Rifkin got himself into a personally and politically awkward position. He was supporting his mentor, Mr. Steinberg, in the Democratic primary. But Mr. Evans, one of his partners by then, was backing the front-runner, Parris N. Glendening.

Loyalty questioned

Mr. Steinberg's campaign was faltering when the firm held a fund-raising luncheon for Mr. Glendening. Mr. Rifkin praised Mr. Glendening at the event, prompting speculation that he was jumping ship and being disloyal to his mentor. "It was a clear-cut endorsement," said one luncheon participant.

Mr. Rifkin said he just wanted to introduce Mr. Glendening to clients who wanted to meet him. Reports of his comments "caused a very awkward moment in my relationship with Mickey Steinberg that wasn't reflective of what occurred," he said.

In retrospect, Mr. Rifkin said, "I didn't have to be the person to make the introductory remarks."

He and Mr. Evans parted ways professionally last fall, with both ++ forming new firms. "Our style and personalities were incompatible. Like any marriage, some make it and some don't. This one didn't," said Mr. Evans, who got custody of a major client, the Washington Redskins.

Mr. Rifkin patched things up with Mr. Steinberg, who this year joined his former intern's firm.

Despite his success in the State House, Mr. Rifkin, who lives in Columbia with his wife and two young sons, talks about spending less time lobbying. He says he'd like to focus more on straight legal work.

"I'm more comfortable and enjoy the profession more when it's more on the level of advocacy, substance and argument," he said. "I'm somewhat less comfortable when it touches on the raw nerve of political fund raising and campaigning."

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