Povich lends power to 'the People' in State House Despite many defeats, lobbyist bounces back


In Annapolis, where lobbyists represent every special interest from the oil industry and the Chesapeake Bay to casino companies and the Roman Catholic Church, only Deborah Povich lists her client as "the People."

One of the State House's resident altruists, Ms. Povich pushes bills each year to curb the influence of moneyed interests and open up the political process to average citizens.

And each year, the General Assembly kills most of her proposals. Instead of becoming discouraged, Ms. Povich, who serves as executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, the self-proclaimed citizens' lobby, keeps bouncing back like a duck in a boardwalk shooting gallery.

Two weeks ago, lawmakers killed a proposal that would have made it easier for people to find out who funds their campaigns. On Thursday, Ms. Povich was back testifying for a bill that would forbid lobbyists from raising money for statewide political candidates.

"I didn't hear any opposition," she said, optimistically.

In the State House, where perks are cherished and change often comes slowly, Ms. Povich is one of the more quixotic characters. While some of her fellow advocates dine with legislators at Annapolis' best restaurants, she often eats in the cafeteria, preferring to corner lawmakers in their offices where they can't walk away from her.

Last year, the state's highest-paid lobbyist brought in about $1 million in fees. Ms. Povich's compensation: a $35,000 annual salary and the satisfaction of occasionally changing the law.

In 1991, she helped prohibit lobbyists from raising money for state senators and delegates, a practice she said had given them undue influence. Last session, she successfully pushed to make lobbyists reveal the names of legislators they treat to meals of $15 or more.

Some in the General Assembly, even her supporters, think Ms. Povich occasionally goes too far in her attempts to hold legislators accountable, adding to an already burdensome bureaucracy of disclosure forms and reports. Others say they find her confrontational style and righteous indignation a bit irritating.

"Sometimes she comes off as [having] a morally superior attitude toward everyone," said Baltimore County Sen. Michael J. Collins, co-chairman of the legislature's ethics committee.

But even Ms. Povich's opponents agree that she is a tenacious, knowledgeable and hard-working advocate.

"She's a very talented and very skilled person," said Baltimore Sen. Clarence W. Blount, who has sparred with her over abolishing a scandal-tinged legislative scholarship program.

Grudging admiration aside, Ms. Povich isn't always taken seriously in the State House. Consider her testimony a couple of weeks ago before the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee.

During the hearing, she urged members to pass a bill to limit the rising costs of state campaigns. She said voluntary spending limits would help make legislators less beholden to special interest groups.

Some lawmakers listened. Others, though, talked and laughed among themselves, creating a constant buzz of conversation during her testimony.

Although no witnesses spoke against the bill, Chairman Gerald J. Curran predicted afterward that the measure would fail, saying that it takes time for the General Assembly to warm up to new proposals. Ms. Povich pointed out that some incumbents oppose such reform because it might make their own races more competitive.

Despite her frequent defeats, she keeps a sense of humor about the legislative process. After a particularly bad day, Ms. Povich will wander into reporters' offices in the State House basement and regale them with stories about what she sees as the latest injustice.

"Can you believe it? Can you believe it?" she will say, laughing and waving her hands in exasperation. "It would be funny if it weren't how we make laws." Ms. Povich, 44, has taken a circuitous route to her role as civic watchdog. She first came to Annapolis as a teen-ager when her father was served as head dentist at the Naval Academy. When she returned in 1975, she went to work at a restaurant across from the State House.

She recalled lobbyists buying drinks for legislators over lunch. At the end of the meal, the lobbyists would say, "Now, let's go vote on those bills."

It was a galvanizing experience. The close relationship between private advocate and public representative "struck me as fundamentally flawed," Ms. Povich said.

After her son, Ahriel, entered middle school, she took a job with Common Cause in 1988. Two decades after dropping out of college in California, she graduated summa cum laude in 1990 from the University of Maryland College Park with a bachelor's degree in government and politics. Four years later, she became the executive director of Common Cause.

Ms. Povich said she was drawn to the organization because she identified with its concern for justice. Her parents raised her with a strong sense of right and wrong, she said, and fairness has always been a driving force in her life.

"I thought she'd be running a labor union one day," said her mother, Sara Friesz.

For all of Ms. Povich's humor in the face of defeat, she acknowledges that her role in Annapolis is often a lonely. one. By pushing to reform the sometimes chummy relationships between legislators and lobbyists, she has alienated some of her fellow advocates. In trying to trim political perks, she has angered legislative leaders at times.

"You lose and lose and lose, then when you win one, there is no one to celebrate with," Ms. Povich said.

"It's no surprise leadership would like us to go away. We're there to push for reforms that often challenge the status quo. We're not there to make friends."

Pub Date: 3/05/96

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