ANNAPOLIS – Willie Collier knew he was an outsider the first time he climbed the State House steps.
He came seeking money for schools, because at his, the track is too torn up to host a competition, ceiling tiles fall in the middle of class and the auditorium is so leaky performers stomp in puddles.
Inside the capitol, he encountered a daily Annapolis ritual — lawmakers and lobbyists mingling in the marbled halls, hand shaking, backslapping and cheek smooching.
“It was intimidating,” said Willie, 18. “It seemed like one big game.”
He wanted to play, but he didn’t know the teams or the rules. He was just one of hundreds of citizens to try to influence lawmakers this session — a regular guy without a briefcase, suit jacket or rulebook.
Trickling through the metal detectors every day were people like him — grandmothers, students and widows; busloads of felons and college students; parents of the gifted, the disabled and the underprivileged; lovers of dogs and ferrets; even one indignant and determined cock-fighter.
They left with varying degrees of satisfaction, and, usually, a different understanding of how democracy works here.
The lawmakers’ handshakes and smiles and promises left Willie unconvinced, uneasy.
“It’s nice,” he said, “but I think there’s a lot of underground, beating- around-the-bush stuff going on.”
He’s not wrong, both insiders and experts say.
There is an underground Annapolis, a place where votes are courted and traded with campaign contributions and pork, party blessing, leadership positions or cushy districting. It’s a place where elected leaders demand their way and a chairman’s wishes outweigh the combined will of his committee.
“There’s no question it is much more complicated than the average citizen understands it to be,” said R. Scott Fosler, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Affairs. “And it’s gotten a lot more complicated.”
That complexity makes the system less accessible and harder to navigate, a place where ordinary voices are drowned out by lobbyists, corporations and campaign contributors.
For newcomers, it can be discouraging and bewildering.
Consider the ferret people. They arrived enthusiastic and determined, with a willing lawmaker on their side. No one told them the committee had agreed on its vote hours before anyone ever testified.
Consider Mike Tabor, a “leftover activist from the ’60s,” who believes big business targets kids in school. He backed a bill regulating school soft-drink machines before a Senate committee.
In the other corner were vending and soft-drink companies led by Bruce Bereano, the flamboyant heavyweight champ of Annapolis lobbying.
Tabor grew dismayed and angry when senators walked out of the room, fiddled with e-mail and made phone calls during the hearing.
“There was a certain atmosphere of . . . I think sleaze,” he said afterward. “We don’t have any money. We don’t have a lobbyist. We just hope — and the fact of the matter is it’s probably a naive hope — that we are not wasting our time.”
Consider, then, a group that didn’t bother. Charter school advocates have pushed for state authorization year after year. But this year, they were scarce.
“I don’t feel like being disappointed again,” said Joe Hawkins, co- chairman of the Jaime Escalante charter school board. “You get so tired of going down to Annapolis. Nothing happens.”
That kind of discouragement is one dangerous effect of an unwieldy system, said Sean Dobson of Progressive Maryland, a group working to empower working people.
“There’s a growing cynicism,” he said, pointing to voting rates that have fallen below 50 percent. “It’s poison for democracy when people just drop out and give up.”
To be successful, citizens need leverage, said Fosler, who has studied citizen participation from all sides — frustrated voter, elected official and former chairman of the National Civic League, a group trying to make democracy more democratic.
The first obstacle can be citizens’ own expectations, he said.
The General Assembly this year dealt with 2,427 bills in 90 days. When time is tight, no citizen passion can sway lawmakers from high-impact issues such as reforming education or balancing the budget, as the ferret fanciers discovered.
With small staffs and increasingly complex issues, lawmakers depend on lobbyists — professional and amateur — for information.
There were 695 registered lobbyists in Annapolis last session, according to the State Ethics Commission, plus some unregistered regulars. That’s almost four lobbyists for each of the 188 lawmakers. Top lobbyists can earn $1 million a year, usually representing large corporations, not do-gooder groups.
The uninitiated, armed with nothing but idealism, tend to lobby the wrong people the wrong way at the wrong time, said professional lobbyist Robin Fogel Shaivitz.
Her leverage comes from 24 years of experience, a six-figure salary and an expense account funded by one of the top firms in town, Alexander & Cleaver.
“The advantage I have over the citizen lobbyist is I’m there all the time, I’m clued in, I have relationships,” Shaivitz said. “I have access to people the average citizen just does not have.”
“My heart goes out to those people,” she said. “They’re putting in all this time and energy and they don’t have a chance.”
Adam Levner hasn’t figured his chances, yet. A rookie lobbyist for Stand for Children, his job is to round up parents, grandparents and students like Willie and get them involved.
He’d have better luck taking a tour of historic, rather than political, Annapolis.
“There are no signs explaining where to go,” Levner said. “No visitors’ desk. No map saying your delegation is on second floor. Honestly, all the buildings look the same. We’re not taught how to do that kind of stuff, this real kind of civics.
“People can go their whole lives without having any idea how decisions get made.”
Cash makes decisions, Dobson said.
“Let’s keep our eye on the ball, here,” he said. “The real problem is money.”
In the last election cycle, corporations accounted for 87 percent of interest group donations. Less than 1 percent of Marylanders contributed.
Not only do the odds favor big business, Dobson said, but the $35 million pumped into state lawmakers’ campaigns went primarily to comfortable incumbents and party leaders, strengthening the top-heavy system and empowering the leaders farthest from citizens’ reach.
Tabor, the parent against soft drinks in schools, did not make a campaign contribution. He found the bill sponsor, Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, accessible and helpful. Pinsky supports campaign finance reform.
But his opposition contributed thousands in the last election cycle. And their lobbyist, Bereano, reported annual earnings of $497,750.72 recently.
“What’s the sense of testifying?” Tabor said. “Why did we go through this? I’m not going back unless I have to. All I have to do is just send money.”
Citizens can win access without a large cash outlay — with sheer numbers, if they are organized.
About 1,000 Morgan State University students flooded State Circle to demand a new library, obtaining the right permits and lining up nine buses, 50 car pools and 450 lunches.
They yelled so loud lawmakers had to close the windows to get work done.
“It’s doable,” Fosler said. “It isn’t a myth. It really is a remarkably open system . . . if you put in the time.”
In the end, the ferret and vending bills died swiftly. The charter school bill died slowly. The Morgan State kids sparked debate and praise, but left with an IOU.
The cock-fighter, despite being alone in opposing a bill to toughen laws against his way of life, and to the dismay of veteran lawmakers and lobbyists, won his case.
So did Willie.
Schools got the largest funding increase in state history, thanks to a last-minute compromise. Willie’s county, Prince George’s, got the most. He is not naive enough to think he had much to do with that. But, he says, it doesn’t matter.
Democracy was served, in a small way, just because he showed up.
“A lot of people say, you can’t make a difference. They say that’s just the system,” he said. “Well, I think that’s the wrong attitude to have. If you influence just one person, you made a difference.
“At least I can say I came down here. At least I did something.”