Uncorking respect for pro-markets 'vineyards worker'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LAST APRIL, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stunned hundreds of Maryland business leaders by practically begging them to "be dangerous" politically and accusing them of displaying "Patty Hearst syndrome" by snuggling up to liberal captors.

Almost as unusual as the message was the medium: a luncheon thrown by Maryland Business for Responsive Government and its president, Robert O.C. "Rocky" Worcester. For the second year in a row, Ehrlich brought gubernatorial prestige and attention to a conservative, pro-markets group long accustomed to neither.

Blackballed during the administration of Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening, sometimes estranged even from other business groups, MBRG is enjoying attention and relevance that it has seldom, if ever, received.

"Rocky is on the winning side right now," says James T. Brady, who was economic development secretary under Glendening and sits on the MBRG board.

"Winning," of course, doesn't necessarily mean getting legislation passed, as Ehrlich has discovered. But even enemies congratulate Worcester on his new and unexpected status as Maryland's listened-to business-policy leader.

"In fairness to him, he worked in the vineyards a long time and deserves - what would I say? - a tasty harvest," says Glendening, who confirmed that while governor he never spoke to Worcester.

"Worked in the vineyards," "Sisyphus" and "underdog" come up when the conversation is about Worcester. After all, he fought unions, trial lawyers, taxes and liberal legislators for more than two decades in a state that runs on federal spending, hasn't voted Republican for president since 1988 and, before choosing Ehrlich, hadn't elected a Republican governor since 1966.

Trial lawyers, Worcester says, are "as avaricious a group as we have in this society." The General Assembly has become "increasingly obdurate." A proposed payroll tax on certain employers, to expand health coverage in the state, that is backed by the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative would turn state health care into "something like the Department of Motor Vehicles."

Health Initiative President Vincent DeMarco and allies are "Vinnie and his banditos."

("He's a good guy," DeMarco says of Worcester, adding that MBRG "is incapable of doing something reasonable" on health care.)

MBRG's most interesting relationship is a love-hate one with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, ostensibly a conservative, pro-enterprise group but described by Worcester as essentially "tactical" and flexible according to political needs while MBRG holds fast to strategic principles.

"This organization has always been regarded by the chamber as a pain in the ass," Worcester says. "There's no getting away from it. It's nowhere written down. But that's the role."

Case in point: The chamber was officially neutral on the HMO tax to help doctors pay for malpractice insurance, which was recently enacted over Ehrlich's veto. Worcester attacked the levy as "a cynical ploy - a tax on mostly low-income, working people to secure an entitlement for a rapacious legal class."

Chamber spokesman William Burns insists that "there's always been a good relationship between the two organizations," noting that the chamber links to MBRG's "Roll Call" legislative ratings on its Web site and otherwise assists with the rankings.

But he acknowledges that Worcester can go places politically and rhetorically that chamber executives cannot.

"We have three registered lobbyists on the ground here in Annapolis, and the last thing we want to do is lose access," he said.

MBRG goes back a way: It was founded in 1983 with Worcester as essentially the entire staff. He still is. The enterprise has survived with financing and leadership from people such as McCormick & Co. Chairman Bailey Thomas and Monumental Life Insurance chief Larry Jenkins.

The roots of Robert Oliver Colt Worcester are also impressive. He descends directly from Robert Oliver, 19th-century Baltimore merchant and B&O; Railroad director, and indirectly from Samuel Colt, the gun maker.

The ancestral associations impressed on him "how this country has prospered" he says, and helped foster a belief that "the economic liberties that we have and all the other liberties that we have are inextricably bound together."

It's a sentiment presumably shared by Ehrlich, who's quoted on MBRG's Web site as calling it "the most listened-to, relevant organization in Annapolis" and whose chief fund-raiser, Richard E. Hug, was MBRG chairman until recently.

Worcester takes partial credit for the governor's "be dangerous" message to business leaders, saying he met with Ehrlich's chief of staff, Steven L. Kreseski, a few days before the speech and suggested that state-run health care would be increasingly likely unless Maryland CEOs become "uncommonly active" in politics.

Ehrlich, who declined to comment for this column, was thinking along the same lines, said spokesman Henry Fawell, who confirmed the meeting between Worcester and Kreseski.

"It's a long-held belief of the governor's that the business community needed to be more active," Fawell said. "It's a shared belief between the two, and obviously that was a great forum for the speech."

Worcester's present crusade is advocating an alternative health-reform plan to DeMarco's payroll tax. It's significant for a couple of reasons. First, MBRG is for something - expanded health care financed with tax credits. Second, MBRG sought help on the left, working to promote the plan with the Democratic Leadership Council and Casper R. Taylor Jr., the former General Assembly Democratic House speaker.

No bill has been submitted, which prompts some to question the proposal's viability.

"I dare you, Rocky Worcester, to put in a bill," says DeMarco.

But Worcester insists the plan is politically doable and presented in good faith. If MBRG doesn't halt "government-run health care" and help develop private-sector alternatives, he says, its long-term impact may look like that made by an arm plunged into a bucket of water - "once you remove your arm."

Otherwise, he says, he'll quote former Alex. Brown Chairman A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard making a long-ago statement that Krongard confirmed: "I can't make a case that Maryland business is better off because of MBRG; but I can make a case that because of MBRG it's not worse off."

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