Josh Kurtz: Louie Louie

By Josh Kurtz

It’s probably a stretch to say that a politician or political entity’s success can be measured by the type of celebrity they attract to headline their events.

And yet there’s something eye-catching about the fact that the group Maryland Business for Responsive Government is bringing in the comedian Louie Anderson to speak at a fundraiser for its political action committee at the Comedy Club in Baltimore next week. We’ll pause here for a minute to let MBRG’s critics tee up the insults about how it’s fitting to have a comedian as a headliner for an organization that has at times been regarded in Maryland political circles as a joke.

But laugh all you want. Anderson isn’t quite an A List celebrity, but he’s a good get for MBRG. And his appearance comes at a time of transition among business groups in Maryland, with MBRG poised to play a bigger role in state politics than it previously has.

Kimberly McCoy Burns, the seasoned Annapolis lobbyist who took the reins of MBRG from the bombastic Rocky Worcester last year, says the goal for the group’s PAC is to raise and spend $250,000 in 2014. That sounds like a pittance, considering that the forces supporting and opposing expanded gambling in the state are spending tens of millions of dollars on the ballot question this November – not to mention the heavy spending unions are expected to do in 2014.

But the Maryland Chamber of Commerce shuttered its PAC after the 2010 election. And the Greater Washington Board of Trade has also suspended its PAC activities in Maryland and has no intention of reviving it for 2014, “frustrated,” according to Board of Trade President Jim Dinegar, “about the [legislature’s] inability to pass a gasoline tax [increase] or anything to support the Transportation Trust Fund.” (The Board of Trade shut down its Virginia PAC four years ago, also out of frustration over the political gridlock over transportation spending, and may not play in D.C. in the 2014 election cycle because of all of the corruption and uncertainty there.)

Dozens of business entities, from the Academy of Audiology to Whitney, Bailey, Cox and Magnani, the influential Towson architectural firm, have registered state political action committees. But increasingly MBRG is looking like the only game in town when it comes to statewide business umbrella groups trying to influence the 2014 elections. And Burns believes that by focusing on legislative races, and possibly the races for governor and attorney general, MBRG will be a factor.

“We intend to invest our money wisely and where it can make the biggest amount of difference,” she said.

Which doesn’t minimize the importance of the Maryland Chamber, the granddaddy of statewide business groups. But the chamber has gone through an undeniable evolution in the last decade.

When current President Kathleen Snyder took over, Parris Glendening was still governor, and Snyder, having once led the Prince George’s County chamber, was seen as someone who could help smooth over relations between the business community and the governor following the tenure of her more combative predecessor, Champe McCulloch.

After Bob Ehrlich became governor, he famously exhorted Chamber members to “get dangerous” — to become confrontational with Democratic leaders in Annapolis, and reprisals be damned. But that has rarely been the Chamber’s MO under Snyder.

“With our primary emphasis on strengthening Maryland’s economic competitiveness across the state, our efforts are being directed at building a statewide coalition of business organizations to help educate whomever is elected in 2014,” Snyder said in an email to Center Maryland. “We do not endorse or use our resources with any other PAC. If our members inquire or voice interest about business PACs in the state of Maryland, we make referrals, including to MBRG’s.”

MBRG leaders have always been a little dismissive about the Chamber’s approach, grumbling about the Chamber placing a priority on “access” over advocacy. MBRG’s annual publication, Roll Call, which rates Annapolis lawmakers on key votes, has been an important weapon for the business community — but given the state’s deep blue hue, one that only really resonates in swing districts in politically centrist jurisdictions.

Still, MBRG seems on the ascent. As just one small example, Betty Buck, the politically connected beer wholesaler from Prince George’s County, recently joined the PAC’s board of directors, after years of serving on the Chamber PAC board.

And under Burns — daughter of a former Democratic legislator from Baltimore and wife of a former Republican legislator from Anne Arundel County — the group is likely to be run a little more strategically, and work to place itself more in the mainstream, than it did under Worcester. Burns was personally close to William Donald Schaefer and can speak to Schaefer Democrats, a shrinking but still politically potent force in the state.

Of course, Marvin Mandel and Ellen Sauerbrey are still MBRG’s co-chairmen. They may both be eminences and historical figures, but they’re beyond yesterday’s news — they’re the day before yesterday’s news. It might behoove the group to find some fresher figureheads soon.

Louie Anderson is no one’s idea of a young, cutting-edge comic. But he’s a talented and successful guy with a national following, and for MRBG, his presence, arranged through a board member who had a connection to some of Anderson’s handlers, is, symbolically, a start on the road to relevance. Burns said ticket sales are brisk, and she’s finding that businesses that don’t usually play in Maryland politics are signing up — and presumably giving MRBG a fresh look.

As for her star attraction, “I have no idea what he’s going to say,” Burns said.

In a phone interview over the weekend from Atlanta, where he headlined the opening of a brand-new outpost of the Improv club in the city’s Buckhead neighborhood, Anderson, who’s known in this raunchy era as a “clean” comic, provided a preview.

“I’m going to talk a little bit about food,” he said. “I’m going to talk a little bit about family. I’m going to talk a little bit about being over 50. I’m going to talk a little politics – but not too much politics…Just going to have pure fun.”

Anderson said that as the owner of a one-man business, he’s sympathetic to business leaders who rail against overregulation. Through the years, he’s witnessed marginal comedy clubs go belly up under the crush of government regulation. That kind of message should please his audience in Baltimore.

At the same time, Anderson in conversation sounds like a genuine bleeding-heart liberal, and that may give some of the MBRG faithful pause. He grew up poor in Minnesota, one of 11 children, and his family was frequently on some form of public assistance. The government help, which lifted him up, “was a good investment,” he said, “because I’ve paid a million dollars in taxes.”

That line is delivered without complaint – and Anderson believes that tax fairness is a legitimate issue in American politics these days. “I think people are fed up with the idea that the rich have so much,” he said. “I think people are mad at the idea that the rich pay so little taxes.”

Anderson said he is starting to organize a drive to stamp out homelessness in Las Vegas, where there is a theater named for him, and he lauds nonprofit groups that do anti-poverty work. “There are 40 million people one [missed] paycheck away from poverty.”

Anderson said he was not aware that Gov. Martin O’Malley may have presidential aspirations, but he said that doesn’t surprise him.

“Doesn’t every governor think, ‘this is one small step for my state, and one giant leap for my campaign?’” he mused.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

After the Blue Wave Crashes

The Impossible DREAM?

I’m Ready for My Close-up, Mr. DeMille

A Conversation with Ken Ulman

The Future Is Now?

Michael Row the Boat Ashore

Influencers: The Readers Speak

Will Battaglia Run for AG in 2014?

Chrys-field

You Can Still Probably Bet Against Roscoe Bartlett

Ten Years After