June 21, 2010

How DeMarco made his mark at the Maryland State House

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Ever wonder how health care lobbyist Vinny DeMarco earned his successive victories on tobacco taxes and expanding health coverage? A new book by longtime health advocate Michael Pertschuk seeks to answer that question.

The DeMarco Factor: Transforming Public Will into Political Power” is not a biography, but a how-to book that dissects DeMarco’s campaigns over the last 15 years and tries to apply its lessons to other social action campaigns involving legislatures.

But first, a DeMarco story: Four days before the Baltimore Examiner folded in February 2009, Vinny called me to see if I, then the paper’s State House bureau chief, was covering one of his events the next day. Talking on my cell phone as I walked on the top of the Union Station parking garage in D.C. heading for an event at the U.S. Capitol, I recall saying something like “you do realize that the paper is shutting down on Sunday?” Yes, he was very sorry to see us go, said Vinny, head of the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative. But are you coming to my press conference?

Vinny has the cell phone number of every Maryland reporter, editor and producer known to man, and is unrelenting in his persistent pestering and massaging of the media. Pertschuk examines in great detail this relentless cultivation of the media.

Reporters are key players in the DeMarco saga. In many cases, they come off as lazy lapdogs who eagerly wag their tails as Vinny tosses them bits of health care hamburger, often a warmed-over repackaging of the same poll results they had written weeks before.

Polls are a key component of DeMarco’s success. Vinny uses polling to show that there is broad and deep public support for the health care causes he is advocating, and to show lawmakers that voters will take their stand on these issues into account on election day.

In the latter half of this 223-page book, Pertschuk encapsulates some of DeMarco’s strengths.

“Vincent DeMarco is no revolutionary; he’s not even a radical,” writes Pertschuk. “Nor can DeMarco help much in confronting those issues that deeply and evenly divide us; immigration, gay marriage, abortion ….

“DeMarco’s skills and strategies come into play where there exists broad, generalized popular support for policy change that the power of threatened interests has thwarted. Under such conditions, DeMarco goes about mobilizing and focusing that public sentiment into a political force capable of counteracting the power of the lobbies. While DeMarco may not be a political radical, he undertakes these campaigns in ways radically different from those that most progressive issue advocates have grown accustomed to, whether or not they have proved effective.”

Pertschuk, 77, a former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, was one of the lead combatants in the early days of the tobacco wars 40 years ago, and has continued this crusade throughout his life. He is a flat-out fan of DeMarco, and the book is largely told through DeMarco’s eyes and those of his close associates. Pertschuk did interview some of DeMarco’s antagonists, in particular lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who is allowed to express some of his deep disgust with DeMarco’s aggressive tactics and to play down what he feels is DeMarco’s overblown role.

Scores of players familiar to any State House regular populate this book. It seeks to dish out the skinny on past legislative fights won, lost and abandoned. This inside dope on the story behind the story is fascinating and some of it may be true – and some of it might not be.

In the midst of writing this review, I ran into someone who plays a minor role in the story line and who was infuriated by how that role was inaccurately portrayed. Others may feel the same about their depictions here. , but they’ll have to scan the whole book to find the passages about themselves, since there is no index. CORRECTION: The 10-page index was left out of the review copy sent to me.

Pertschuk does his best to apply DeMarco’s strategies and tactics to other campaigns, but he concedes,” Not everyone can take on DeMarco’s unique set of leadership traits and skills.” I can attest to having witnessed some of these DeMarco traits personally.

These include an authentic, funny and flexible personality that forms personal relationships easily; untiring energy that drives people and policy, and drives some of them crazy; the ability to form broad coalitions with the sometimes unwilling, such as important church groups; the importance of gaining and keeping the support of the governor and other key leaders; the willingness to compromise and accept significant incremental change, rather than a noble all-or-nothing defeat; and the ability to keep coming back cheerfully after repeated rejections, until he wears the subject down.

This book is not an even-handed, objective account of the tobacco wars in Maryland, but a cheerleader’s take on one of the key players in the game. Anyone interested in how the legislative process works can learn something from this book.