Josh Kurtz: The Bruce of Summer

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“Good times and bum times,
I’ve seen them all and, my dear,
I’m still here.
Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I’m here.”

-- From Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies”

Say this about Bruce Bereano: He knows how to throw a party.

With no electioneering to speak of at last month’s Tawes crab feast in Crisfield, Bereano’s tent – four tents, really, almost like a circus big top – was where all the political action was. Bereano, the ringmaster, in an oversized black T-shirt that said, “Lobbyists Have Issues,” couldn’t have been happier.

Tawes is the ultimate summer event for Maryland politicos, and Bereano has always been a part of it. But in recent years he and his tent have taken on more and more prominence. In an off-year, when there isn’t an election going on, it’s about the only place at the crab feast for political junkies to get their fix.

Much has been said through the years about Bruce Bereano, the most colorful – and the most enduring – lobbyist Annapolis has ever seen. But some of it’s worth repeating and expanding upon. The first million-dollar man in the lobbying corps – and the first convicted felon – Bereano, like the old showgirl in the Sondheim song, has seen plush velvet and pretzels and beer.

According to the State Ethics Commission, Bereano earned a “mere” $443,000 as a State House lobbyist from Nov. 1, 2009 to Oct. 31, 2010 – placing him 14th on the earnings list. Depending on how you look at it, that’s an incredible fall from grace – or a sign of Bereano’s luck and pluck.

There is much to disdain about Bereano, for whom the word subtlety is a foreign concept. Some people find him personally repellent (though he can be irresistible to women – just ask him). Aggressive, overbearing, profane, he’s a little creepy in his single-minded desire to serve clients and butter up officeholders, past and present. That single-mindedness, in fact, probably resulted in his conviction so many years ago on charges that he overbilled clients and used the excess cash to make campaign contributions.

Other lobbyists make well-placed campaign contributions to key lawmakers, or advise their clients to do so. Bereano, by contrast, throws himself into campaigns – most recently and visibly, for former Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s failed comeback. His stable of political favorites is largely made up of rogues, renegades, has-beens and the easily-manipulated.

But there’s something strangely admirable about him, too. The current crop of high-earning Annapolis lobbyists, while pursuing every angle, doling out favors and exploiting every connection to ply their trade – just like Bereano – operate with a cool detachment. You don’t see any of them sweating at Crisfield year after year after year. Bereano throws everything he’s got into the game – to the point of obnoxiousness.

You get the sense that this is his life, that there’s nothing else. Bereano’s attempts to hit every political fundraiser or charity event in the state – even if it takes him from Cumberland to Cambridge in a single night – are legendary. Many is the tale of a legislator being woken up to a “Happy Birthday” phone call from Bereano.

There’s a certain pathos and poignancy to that. He’s haimish, if nothing else. Remember, Gerry Evans, the other Annapolis lobbyist who did time (#3 on the 2009-2010 earnings list, with $1,038,500), was convicted for bilking his clients, pretending there was a legislative threat when there wasn’t. Bereano, you could argue, was actually trying to help his clients by currying favor with legislators.

Bereano also seems to have an affinity with many African-American legislators – and vice-versa. There was state Sen. Anthony Muse, a serious operator in his own right, rushing to Bereano’s tent at the crab feast’s closing time, just to give him a hug. That’s a long way to travel for a hug, and one can’t help but wonder whether there was something transactional about that embrace. But that’s just Bruce.

Perhaps most noteworthy at Bereano’s tent were how many former elected officials were there, starting with ex-Gov. Marvin Mandel, whose political profile matches up nicely with Bereano’s – Jewish former liberal, also convicted of a felony (though later overturned, in Mandel’s case), now very much part of the Ehrlich crowd. Bereano has made it a personal crusade to deify the 91-year-old former chief executive.

“Best governor the state has ever had!” he called out on numerous occasions during the crab feast.

But there was more than just Mandel. In fact there were so many “formers” in Bereano’s air space that you could have had a quorum in the legislature, circa 1998, if you had turned back the clock. There were people there who we thought were dead or in jail, people who hadn’t been heard from in years. Richie Palumbo! Tom Hendershot! Gloria Lawlah! Oh wait, she’s in the O’Malley cabinet, isn’t she?

Good government types hate Bruce Bereano. They feel like he’s the epitome of all that’s wrong with Annapolis, where little ever seems to be done on the merits, where it’s all about the glad-handing and back-scratching and the influence of big money, where the legislative process is reduced to gamesmanship and the calling in of chits.

But that didn’t start with Bereano, and it won’t end when he’s gone (as if he ever will be – he seems indestructible). Bereano just has a very pronounced and distinctive way of plying his trade. It may not be pretty, but it’s something to behold.

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

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Nightmare Scenario

Sources: Congressional delegation Dems eye Bartlett as redistricting target

Talkin’ 'Bout Their Generation

A Triple Play of Political Shame – An Indictment of the Ehrlich Campaign, Maryland’s Fumble on Gay Marriage, and the Prince George’s Ethical Saga

White Prince George's

A DREAM Denied?

Frack This!

The Undercard

Talking Union Blues

The Peter Principle

Mapmaker, Mapmaker Make Me a Map

Two More Giants Exit the Maryland Scene

Six Degrees of William Donald Schaefer

The Lion in Winter

O’Malley’s (Coast to Coast) March

This Time It's Personal
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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.