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Annapolis braces for the shift in culture

For evidence that times are changing in Annapolis, look no further than the rear window of lobbyist Bruce Bereano's big beige Mercedes Benz.

Just last month, it featured not one but three bumper stickers for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's re-election bid. A day after the Nov. 7 election, however, Bereano - always ferociously loyal to the Republican incumbent - stripped the window of its accoutrements.

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And so begins a new day in Annapolis and the return to all-Democratic rule in the State House, with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's recent election and Jan. 17 swearing-in.

The capital city is bound for a cultural shift - from lobbyists who were "in" under Ehrlich soon finding themselves with noses pressed to State House windows, to those bar owners who can only keep fingers crossed that O'Malley will show up with his Celtic rock band.

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"It's an evolution, you know, you're not going to see David Hamilton around Annapolis nearly as much," said J. William Pitcher, a longtime lobbyist who has partnered over the past four years with Hamilton, Ehrlich's lawyer and confidant.

Republican lobbyists who migrated from Washington with Ehrlich in power have already sought out Democratic brethren to instead do their bidding. And their colleagues, Bereano included, who made clear their preference for Ehrlich can count on diminished influence - or a yet-to-be-determined period of profound groveling - with O'Malley in charge.

Meanwhile, the ceaseless friction that existed between Ehrlich and the Democrat-dominated General Assembly is expected to let up considerably. With an incoming lieutenant governor who served as majority whip in the House of Delegates, observers anticipate a more activist second floor. They say teachers, labor unions, environmentalists and other interest groups that spent the past four years in the political wilderness will have access once again to the policymaking process and the state's top officials.

"I think there's a lot of unfinished business," said Tom Hucker, an incoming Democratic delegate from Silver Spring and former executive director of Progressive Maryland. "Governor Ehrlich got elected as a moderate and promised to be supportive of working families and the environment, and he's not been. And so now we've sort of wasted four years in Annapolis, and many of us feel like the next four years are a great opportunity to get things done."

Other social changes are on the horizon, according to State House watchers. The Ehrlich team, not overly extroverted, never gravitated to a favorite local watering hole. For his part, Ehrlich - a teetotaler - prefers ballgames over bars and concert halls.

But O'Malley's affection for Irish ditties and Guinness beer could prompt his crew to gather at any of several nearby pubs. And just a few steps from Government House, Rams Head Tavern - the West Street music spot - could play host to O'Malley's March, the on-again, off-again band that - in addition to the gym - has long occupied the governor-elect's extracurricular time. (O'Malley's March faithful take note: The band's last date at Rams Head was January 2005.)

Some are ecstatic about the looming changes, ready for new blood and to have access again to the Capitol's inner circle.

"I'm coming in from the cold," said Minor Carter, a Democratic lobbyist tight with O'Malley and Lt. Gov.-elect Anthony G. Brown, and whose opposition to slots put him at odds with Ehrlich. "I think that in the last administration there were certainly people that were more favored than not, and there were people that they actively tried to replace or shun. ... I think these guys will be more issue-oriented than personality-oriented."

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Still others are putting the best shine on a political reality that will leave them scrapping for influence. Even though representatives for O'Malley have said they won't work with convicted felons (an election pledge that affects Bereano and Gerard E. Evans, both of whom were convicted of fraud), Bereano offered the soon-to-be governor the best "howdy" he knows how.

"I very much welcome the new governor," he said during a recent interview. "I respect him. And there's absolutely no reason to think he's not going to do a fine job in serving the people of the state of Maryland."

Does Bereano regret his fervent pitch for Ehrlich's re-election? Would a little restraint have served him well?

"I'm 'totus porcus' in what I do," he said, adding that what he means is that he goes "whole hog" in all his endeavors. "I don't know how to do things just a little bit. And people have told me that's why they hire me, either when I was practicing law or when I was lobbyist."

But with O'Malley in, Bereano is most likely "out."

So it seems are Todd Lamb and Lee Cowen, GOP lobbyists with national party ties who descended on Annapolis when Ehrlich became the first Republican elected governor in 36 years. Through their business, Chesapeake Government Relations, Lamb and Cowen made their case for a range of clients, including Verizon Maryland. But they sold their firm to Dutko Worldwide, an international enterprise.

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Lamb, a gregarious former Bush administration official whose red hair and snappy tortoise glasses make him easy to spot at bars from Annapolis to Ocean City, rejects some Democratic lawmakers' assertions that Ehrlich created a mini-K Street in Annapolis, in which only a few GOP loyalists had open access to his people.

"It seems silly to me to even be surprised by the fact that there were a few new Republican lobbyists in Annapolis after a historic change in the State House," Lamb said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Annapolis became a land defined by R's and D's under Ehrlich. "Most lobbyists that are worth their weight in gold don't get involved that heavily [in politics] and contribute to both sides," Busch said.

But it was hard for some lobbyists to stay neutral during the Ehrlich administration - when the governor's office sometimes got involved in punishing political enemies. Lobbyist Joseph A. Schwartz III, who represented MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society, during a debate on medical malpractice reform, said Ehrlich tried to have him fired.

"The president of MedChi was asked to replace me directly by the governor," Schwartz said. The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to getting the boot at the ballot box, the governor, meanwhile, is "out" in one historic Annapolis spot: Chick and Ruth's Delly. His all-white-meat turkey breast sandwich with lettuce and tomato on wheat toast is being "retired," according to Ted Levitt, the restaurant owner.

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"They go to the Wall of Fame, and they're retired sandwiches," Levitt said, noting that the favorite sandwich of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who lost in the primary, is also out of circulation. "They leave the menu, but they're still in the building."

O'Malley is already a fan of a popular spot for politicians, Galway Bay Irish Restaurant on Maryland Avenue, said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. No word from Abbruzzese, however, about whether O'Malley's March will play again in Annapolis.

But maybe when fall descends, the Ehrlich family's favorite inflatable pumpkin will be retired from the Government House lawn. Replaced, perhaps, by a crooning governor and his band.

Bereano even might want to pull up along State Circle in his Benz, lower his windows and listen to O'Malley's song.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com


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