BALTIMORE – For someone involved in Maryland politics for the past several decades, American Joe Miedusiewski seems to have made remarkably few enemies.
And even though it’s been 14 years since he ran for governor, Miedusiewski remains a familiar face in Baltimore and Annapolis as a well-paid – and apparently likeable – lobbyist.
He’s known for his unusual name and 20 years as a Democratic legislator from 1975 to 1995, but for the past 13 sessions he’s been well recognized in his new craft. Committee chairs often refer to him as “American Joe” when he testifies at their hearings.
“He’s very broadly respected both by legislators and lobbyists alike,” said House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
Miedusiewski, 58, said he never planned to be a lobbyist, but the former state delegate and senator brings a unique perspective in his work with Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, which proclaims itself one of the largest and oldest law firms in the state.
The firm approached him after he ran for governor, coming in second to former Gov. Parris Glendening in the 1994 Democratic primary. He’d been in public service nearly half of his life.
He now represents clients including the Arthritis Foundation, a driving school and the YMCA of Central Maryland. He lobbies for companies that make bingo machines or offer pharmaceutical data mining services, and advocacy groups like the Maryland Green Industries Council.
Miedusiewski was particularly noticed for his work this session representing the American Institute of Architects’ Maryland chapter and others in support of the “green buildings” bill proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley.
The bill, which passed, requires state-funded building projects to meet certain environmental standards.
Miedusiewski discussed other legislative victories and defeats this session in a recent interview in the firm’s old office on Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore.
Among the defeats was a bill that cracks down on certain gambling machines, like virtual bingo, by redefining them as “slot machines.”
It passed the Senate minutes before the session ended.
Miedusiewski said the slots bill was a particular disappointment for his Arizona-based client, Technology Exclusive, which makes virtual bingo machines. They’ll be phased out in Maryland over the next 18 months.
“Even the machines being used for charitable purposes will have to be taken out,” he said, although one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, said the legislature can grant certain exemptions.
Although the session is over, Miedusiewski, who lives in Monkton with his wife of 16 years, Patricia, works as the firm’s marketing director and consults with clients to improve their lobbying and grassroots efforts. He meets with state government agencies regularly.
He said he enjoys lobbying, but will American Joe ever run for office again?
“Never say never,” Miedusiewski said, laughing.
He chose not to return to the legislature after the governor’s race, although he still feels strongly about issues facing Maryland.
“It’s a distinct honor to be the governor of the state, and I really think I could bring something to the table that’s of value,” he said.
But serving in office would come with a hefty pay cut. Miedusiewski made nearly $422,000 from November 2005 to October 2006, according to the State Ethics Commission, making him the 20th highest paid lobbyist in town that period. Figures for 2007 and 2008 are not yet available.
By comparison, O’Malley made $150,000 in 2007.
Inside Miedusiewski’s Baltimore office is a painting of American Joe’s tavern, a city landmark on Luzerne and Foster until it was sold in 1995. Former President Bill Clinton visited in 1992 and shot a few rounds of pool.
Miedusiewski’s Polish grandfather, Josef Mioduszewski, opened the popular bar in 1923, and father Frank Miedusiewski kept the name when he later assumed ownership.
When Frank Miedusiewski ran for the House of Delegates in 1970, he lost by a few hundred votes because some people knew him only as “American Joe” and not by his legal name.
His son, Joseph Francis Miedusiewski, ran for the House and won in 1974 – but not before legally changing his name to “American Joe.”
The memorable name has stuck. Legislators praise Miedusiewski, who was born in Baltimore, for his popularity with constituents during his time in office.
“They would have loved to have him forever,” said Delegate Carolyn Krysiak, D-Baltimore, who served alongside Miedusiewski and ran in the same district.
Her late husband, Charles Krysiak, was also a former delegate.
“My husband was ecstatic [when Miedusiewski was elected] because he really thought Joe was something the Polish community could be proud of,” she said. “And he was right.”
Miedusiewski eventually served as chair of the Baltimore City Delegation and created the Maryland Film Commission, now the Film Office, which still brings tens of millions in film production revenue to the state.
Krysiak, who stayed in the same hotel as Miedusiewski during the 2008 session, said he puts his knowledge and experience as a legislator to work for his lobbying clients.
“He understands the issue inside and out,” she said. “He may have his client with him, but he doesn’t need the client to tell the story.”
Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, served as Miedusiewski’s gubernatorial campaign manager before getting elected to the Senate a few years later. He remembers his former boss warmly.
“He’s just a straight shooter, you know? Which is exactly what you want in a person, and it’s what you want in a lobbyist,” he said.
During the 1994 election, Brochin said campaign managers and their clients often worked out complex legal contracts, but he and Miedusiewski forged a deal on a 3″ by 5″ index card in the candidate’s own kitchen.
“We shook hands on it, and that was it,” Brochin said. “That was the deal, and that’s the kind of guy Joe was.”
Fellow lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who worked with Miedusiewski against the slots bill this session, echoed Brochin’s “straight shooter” compliment.
“He’s professional, he’s courteous, he articulates and advocates for his clients in a very professional way,” he said.
Bereano was lobbying in Annapolis when Miedusiewski was still a legislator.
Miedusiewski likes pulpy orange juice, so Bereano sent some to his Senate office each session.
“He’d always laugh and get a kick out of it,” Bereano said.
Some legislators who’ve been opposed by his clients report pleasant dealings with Miedusiewski, who was described by Sen. Middleton as soft-spoken but “tenacious.”
Delegate Brian Feldman, D-Montgomery, who introduced a bill in the 2008 session to license and regulate debt settlement companies, said his experience with Miedusiewski was “very positive,” despite the fact that Miedusiewski was sent to get the bill withdrawn or altered.
Debt settlement companies charge customers a fee to compromise with credit companies as a way to avoid filing for bankruptcy. The state, Miedusiewski said, was concerned over the service’s fees.
He said the companies and the Attorney General’s office are looking to establish a rate system over the summer, so Feldman withdrew the bill in favor of a study.
Feldman said he is pleased with the outcome.
“The bottom line is that [Miedusiewski] did a good job of pointing out that the bill, as written, was probably not ready for prime-time,” he said.
Reflecting on the 2008 session, Miedusiewski said the legislature has changed since he served more than a decade ago.
“I miss the camaraderie,” he said. “It seems to me when I was in the legislature, there were more legislators that coalesced together to get things done. The groups are smaller ? a lot of legislators do things on their own now.”
Miedusiewski has immense respect for them, having been through similar challenges himself. He compared campaigning to a “baptism by fire,” and said some people feel so strongly about certain issues that they mortgage their houses to run for office.
“I never question their reasoning [for introducing a bill],” he said.
He plans to be back in Annapolis for the 2009 session. Lobbying is a challenging career, he said, and he acknowledges the profession has run into ethical challenges.
He even suggested the satirical lobbying film “Thank You For Smoking,” which portrays a manipulative tobacco lobbyist, contained quite a bit of truth. But he shrugs it off.
“A lot of times they think you can perform these miracles,” he said, laughing. “Nobody’s going to buy anybody for a dinner down there.”