Josh Kurtz: An Old Timer Holds Forth on Annapolis

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When I was a reporter covering Annapolis, I fantasized about going through an entire legislative session without once sitting through a committee hearing or a floor debate.

Not that I was lazy – quite the contrary. But the hearings always seemed very predictable to me. Besides the occasional outburst from someone in the crowd or an intemperate remark from a legislator, you could pretty much write the script ahead of time.

The outcome of every policy debate on the floor of the House and Senate also seemed preordained; legislative leaders, after all, don’t like surprises and work feverishly to avoid them.

I always felt a reporter could learn a lot more – learn what was really going on, in fact – by circulating around the State House lobby before morning floor sessions and by prowling the halls and offices of the legislative buildings in the afternoons. There, you could check in with lobbyists – who after all are paid handsomely to know everything that’s going on – and lawmakers and the stray chatty administration official.

Hitting the bar and reception scene at night was also very fruitful.

I have always maintained that lobbyists essentially run the show in Annapolis – they certainly have more staying power than many politicians there anyway. (That point was driven home a couple of weeks ago when the Baltimore Sun ran a slide show on its website of the top 10 earning lobbyists of the previous year – and most of the pictures were about a decade old. Lobbyists like Gary Alexander and Mike Johansen and Gerry Evans really are The Permanent Government in Maryland.)

By the time my final couple of years in Annapolis rolled around, I came very close to accomplishing my goal – though I still wound up at a hearing or floor session once in a while. Today, I would still counsel people covering Annapolis to keep that goal in mind – even if it isn’t always realistic.

I’d also remind reporters new to the beat that in the Maryland State House, though there are 188 senators and delegates, only 15 or so really matter. Early in the 90-day session, everyone in theory has a measure of say. But as the General Assembly marches toward Sine Die, the number of important players drops off precipitously, as deals are cut in secret, with precious few people in the room.

Think, when you’re reporting there, of the old but crude phrase, which I’ll clean up only slightly here, “opinions are like butts – everybody has one.” It applies perfectly to covering the legislature. Sure you can get any lawmaker to weigh in on any subject – but only certain lawmakers’ opinions matter. You do your readers a disservice if you don’t quote the people whose opinions are important.

Of course, when you work for a local paper, readers expect and deserve to know what their elected officials are saying and doing on the big policy debates of the day. And of course, you will need to cover hearings that specifically affect your jurisdiction. You’ll need to show up if the hearing concerns a local lawmaker’s biggest piece of legislation or if local residents are trekking to Annapolis to make an emotional appeal on one subject or another.

You may find it easy, if you’re the reporter from, say, the Frederick News-Post, to track down the opinion of a local legislator on a tax fight. But that opinion isn’t worth much if you don’t get some idea, from the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee or someone of equal rank or knowledge, if the measure actually stands a chance of passing.

Sometimes in Annapolis, the provocateurs – the people who are willing to say the most outlandish things, even if they are incapable of passing gas through their legislative chamber – get lots of ink. I tried to avoid them if I could.

When you think of the state of American politics today, it is the blowhards who often get the most attention. Just think of the shooting tragedy in Tucson, Ariz., 10 days ago. Nobody, outside of her district and a few thousand Beltway insiders, had heard of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) before she was shot. She was a diligent and conscientious lawmaker who worked hard to wed her principles to the opinions and desires of her constituents.

But chances are most Americans who only follow politics casually have heard of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who is all too quick to call her ideological opponents socialists or enemies of America. Or of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who famously yelled “you lie!” at President Obama during a joint session of Congress. Or of ex-Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and his outrageous pronouncements about Republicans’ attitudes towards health care.

I don’t think anyone could name a single legislative initiative of Bachmann’s or Wilson’s or Grayson’s. I know I couldn’t – and I’ve been paid to follow Congress for more than eight years! But they and their ilk have set the tone for political discourse in this country. Shame on us in the media for giving them a megaphone.

I think of ex-state Sen. Alex Mooney (R) as a cautionary tale. Mooney came to Annapolis knowing his party was deep in the minority and that he’d have a hard time finding allies to pass anything of substance. So he decided instead to try to shake things up and say provocative – and sometimes very negative – things.

For years, given the role he carved out for himself, I thought Mooney was quite effective. But voters tired of his act, of his inability to deliver the bacon or do anything of substance. And despite representing a conservative district in a Republican year, he was bounced this November.

Which goes to show that voters sometimes are a lot more interested in statecraft than in stagecraft – and are often a lot smarter than a cynical old reporter like me.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Maryland's Moment?

Happy New War

Nobody Asked Me, but…

To the Mooney...

Can Baker Cook Up Real Change?

Preppies at the Gate

Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.