The Maryland Chamber of Commerce prides itself on being the voice of the state's business community, but more than two years after a disastrous election foray, the organization is still recovering from an acute case of political laryngitis.
The chamber, which unofficially but obviously aligned itself with Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in the heady days when she appeared to be heading to victory over Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1998, lost that bet and paid the price in lost influence with a Democratic administration and General Assembly.
Champe C. McCullough, the chamber president who openly embraced Sauerbrey, became a political pariah in Annapolis and was out the door in 1999.
As the chamber heads into the 2001 legislative session, there are signs that it is finding its voice again. But under McCullough's successor, Kathleen T. Snyder, the organization is singing a far different tune - sweet to the ears of the ruling Democrats but discordant to many of its Republican allies.
Gone are the insistent cries for broad income-tax cuts and open confrontations with the Glendening administration. In their place is a modest agenda emphasizing transportation and education and a preference for negotiation over confrontation.
The change has brought charges that the chamber has "wimped out" on controversial issues, but Snyder, 49, makes no apologies. The former Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce official, who held a similar position in Alexandria, Va., before returning to Maryland, said the old ways weren't working for the organization and its 1,000 business members.
"The chamber and its board recognized we had lost our effectiveness as a lobbying organization for the business community," Snyder said. "The chamber was viewed as a very partisan Republican organization and it's not."
Snyder has underscored that her shift to a nonpartisan posture by stating that she - unlike McCullough, who contributed $1,500 to Sauerbrey's campaign - would not attend political fund-raisers or donate to candidates. The chamber has also backed away from a short-lived policy of making endorsements in legislative races.
The Glendening administration, whose relationship with the chamber, went into a serious decline after the business group sued the governor over his 1996 executive order granting state employees collective bargaining rights, has welcomed the changes.
"There's open dialog between the administration and the chamber," said Michelle Byrnie, Glendening's press secretary.
Byrnie gave much of the credit to Snyder, who worked with Glendening when he was Prince George's County executive and she was executive vice president of the Prince George's chamber.
"There's an established relationship and she's willing to work with this administration," Byrnie said.
"There's clearly a perception that there's a backing-off some pro-business positions in Annapolis at the request of Parris Glendening," said the congressman from Baltimore County.
For Snyder, who was hired late in 1999, the 2001 session will be the first fair test of her strategy of building ties to the Glendening administration and the Assembly's Democrats, who dominate both houses by large margins.
Snyder said that instead of just lobbying during the session, state chamber officials have made an unprecedented effort to meet with lawmakers throughout the year in their home districts - including Democratic strongholds such as Baltimore City and Montgomery County.
"I believe those relationships have quietly improved over the past year and we need to keep working on our effectiveness as the voice of business in Annapolis," Snyder said.
One of the legislators Snyder met with recently is Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, a Montgomery County Democrat who is generally a safe liberal vote.
The veteran lawmaker, a retired businessman, said it was the first time chamber officials had met with him to sound out his views before making their agenda public.
"Before that, it was 'Here it is, take it or leave it,' " he said. "Now I'm more willing to listen to what they have to say."
While the chamber has not officially backed off its support for tax cuts, officials left little doubt that the issue is on a back burner with the heat turned off. Snyder even indicated that the chamber could support some tax increases as part of a solution to the state's transportation funding problems.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he welcomes the chamber's more "realistic" and less "confrontational" approach.
"It's gratifying for me to see that there are so many unmet needs in the area of transportation and education," said the Cumberland Democrat. "You can't have it both ways in the sense of meeting expensive unmet needs but unwilling to raise the revenue to do it."
But what Democrats view as reason is seen by some Republicans as close to treason.
GOP leaders have been especially incensed by the chamber's decision not to openly confront Glendening over his plan to negotiate a pro-union agreement covering construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
The chamber's decision to negotiate the issues behind the scenes have prompted criticism from House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman that the chamber has "wimped out" in the fight against the "project labor agreement."
The split became public in October when Ehrlich wrote a letter to Snyder expressing "frustration, disappointment and utter disbelief" at the chamber's stance. At the same time, Kittleman and Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden issued a news release excoriating the chamber for its "indifference" on the labor agreement, which they contend will drive up the cost of building the bridge.
"A voice of business means a voice that is heard. The chamber needs to have a voice that is heard by the public," said Madden, who, like Kittleman, is a Howard County legislator.
Snyder said the chamber does oppose project labor agreements but stressed that the executive committee felt it had "everything to lose" by battling the governor in the news media.
"We thought it more prudent, more beneficial to the business community, if we had dialog with members of the administration," Snyder said.
Sen. Robert R. Neall, a former chamber lobbyist and a skeptic about project labor agreements, said the group's tactics make sense because the administration can decide the issue by executive fiat.
"If you're really interested in making the hiring environment open to Maryland contractors, brickbats aren't going to do it," said Neall, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who left the Republican Party after absorbing similar criticism from the right. "In this case, I think the chamber is taking the right tack."
For now, Snyder enjoys the support of her executive committee, which decided on the change in direction even before her hiring.
Art Ebersberger, chairman of the Maryland chamber, said that after McCullogh's departure in 1999 the organization "re-examined ourselves" and decided to adopt a less confrontational stance.
"We had gotten a little too far into not remaining apolitical," Ebersberger said. "Not everybody's Republican or Democrat."
But the chamber's tactics drew scorn from Kittleman, who called the organization's apolitical posture "ludicrous" in view of the pro-business votes of GOP lawmakers.
"Republicans are getting fed up with not having partisan support from the business community," he said, noting that labor and trial lawyers groups actively support Democrats.
Kittleman predicted that the chamber would "wither away" if it continues on its current course. "Why would a businessperson support an organization that doesn't want to join the fray?" he said.