Josh Kurtz: Noteworthy Developments in the Annapolis Lobbying Game

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The recent news that P.J. Hogan is leaving his position as the head of government relations for the University System of Maryland after eight years on the job is significant enough just on its face.

While the timing of Hogan’s departure is coincidental, it means the system’s new chancellor, Robert Caret – perhaps in consultation with new Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and his team – will be able to install his own person in that very important job. It’s sure to be a highly sought-after position and will attract an A List of applicants.

Just as interesting is Hogan’s new gig – and what it means to the ever-evolving world of Annapolis lobbying.

The news release out of the USM office last week announcing Hogan’s move said that Hogan – who spent more than a dozen years in the state Senate before going to work for the university system – is becoming a vice president of an outfit called Cornerstone Government Affairs.

But the significance of that development was understated. What it means is that a big bipartisan national lobbying firm, with all kinds of resources and more than 50 professionals, is entering the lucrative Maryland lobbying game. Although it hasn’t been officially announced yet – and he has been reluctant to publicly disclose his plans – Cornerstone has turned to former Del. John Bohanan (D) to help Hogan launch its Annapolis operation, and others will likely follow.

“As we’ve seen more and more basic gridlock at the federal level, there’s more going on in statehouses,” Hogan said in an interview. He said Cornerstone approached him with an enticing offer that seemed “like the right thing at the right time.”

Although it’s based in Washington, D.C., Cornerstone already has offices in six state capitals: Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Baton Rouge, La.; Des Moines, Iowa; Jackson, Miss.; and Richmond, Va., and also has offices in Chicago and Houston.

Campbell Kaufman, the firm’s managing partner for state government affairs, did not respond to a phone message late last week, but in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year he said that state work represents a growing part of Cornerstone’s revenue stream. The firm just opened its Atlanta office in May, and in July it added Chris Champion, the policy director for Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R), to its Jackson office.

The firm already has some Maryland ties. Earlier this year, it added Heather Molino, a longtime aide to Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), to its D.C. operation. Erik Fatemi, a former city editor of the defunct Montgomery Journal, who went on to a career on Capitol Hill, also works there.

One of the firm’s founders and leaders is Geoff Gonella, who lives in Kensington and is a high school classmate of former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). Gonella – a University of Maryland graduate whose mother was LBJ’s executive secretary – has been on the Columbia Country Club board of governors for the past few years. The country club, over the past two decades, has been the principal opponent of the proposed Purple Line transit project, and held a fundraiser for Larry Hogan shortly after he was elected.

Another Marylander and Cornerstone stalwart is Paul DiNino, a veteran Democratic fundraiser and strategist who has worked for several big-name Democrats and is also close to O’Malley.

Beyond hiring P.J. Hogan and Bohanan – and charging them with procuring Annapolis office space and launching an operation – it isn’t quite clear what Cornerstone’s Maryland play is going to be. Although a few national law firms have a lobbying presence in Annapolis, this is the first time that a national firm that focuses strictly on public affairs is coming into Maryland.

Clearly, there seems to be no shortage of money being thrown around for lobbying in Annapolis – and the pie, apparently, is only expanding.

Cornerstone at the national level has at least a few clients that already have Maryland lobbyists working for them. They include Crop Life America, a pesticides trade group that is represented by Maryland Agricultural Associates; Johnson & Johnson, which is represented by the Rifkin, Weiner, Livingston, Levitan & Silver firm; LifeBridge Health System, which had DLA Piper and Harris Jones Malone on its roster of registered lobbyists this year; and Microsoft Corp., which has used Christopher DiPietro in Maryland.

Hogan said he would likely notify these entities that Cornerstone has opened a Maryland office and ask if he can be of any help. But he was not sure if any of these clients would come over to Cornerstone, and he otherwise expects to be hustling for clients in advance of the 2016 General Assembly session along with all the other Annapolis lobbyists.

By adding Bohanan to its team, Cornerstone is turning to a skilled politician who has always had powerful patrons – including his current boss, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D), the House minority whip on Capitol Hill. Bohanan, who was swept out of office in the Republican tidal wave that hit St. Mary’s County last fall, has been on Hoyer’s staff for two decades, and worked for his now-brother-in-law, former Rep. Roy Dyson (D), before that.

Hogan and Bohanan have teamed up before, working to win preliminary state approval for a new University System of Maryland research and engineering facility for autonomous transportation systems in St. Mary’s County.

“We’re very excited to work together,” Hogan said.

No doubt both Hogan and Bohanan believe they can do better financially as lobbyists than they have been in their current jobs. And that’s saying something. Hogan earned almost $215,000 last year as vice-chancellor of the USM, according to a database of state employee salaries maintained by The Baltimore Sun. Legistorm, a website that tracks Congress, reports that Bohanan has been paid more than $112,000 in the first three quarters of the 2015 federal fiscal year.

With Hogan and Bohanan joining the fray, the number of registered lobbyists with close ties to Senate President Mike Miller (D) continues to grow. Hogan, even when he was a Republican (he switched parties in late 2000), was always one of Miller’s favorites, and Bohanan, even though he’s a former delegate, has the Southern Maryland connection with Miller.

Now they join a list of former Miller aides and political allies in the elite lobbying corps that includes Gerry Evans, John Stierhoff, Joe Bryce, Tim Perry and Josh White.

Expect Hogan and Bohanan to add talent to their Annapolis operation soon. Multiple sources said that Susan Lawrence, the top aide to Senate Finance Chairman Mac Middleton (D) – one of Hogan’s best friends – is among those who have been approached, but nothing has been inked yet.

Annapolis was once a sleepy town where a few lobbyists dominated the scene, based on their backslapping abilities and longstanding relationships with lawmakers and other political leaders.

Relationships in the lobbying corps still matter, of course. But here is further proof that the way the business of government is conducted in Annapolis is becoming ever-more professionalized – and remunerative.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Hogan said.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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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.