- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers won’t start meeting until next week, but the politicking has begun already.

Advocacy groups hoping to sway legislators early have begun placing radio and online advertisements.

Listeners to AM radio stations in Baltimore might be urged to call their lawmakers to support a bill requiring Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to spend more on employee health care.

Newspaper readers online might see banner ads for the other side, asking them to call lawmakers to oppose the Wal-Mart bill.

With the legislature to consider high-profile veto overrides later this month — the Wal-Mart bill and a bill raising the state’s minimum wage — January is not too early to ratchet up advertising for political interest groups.

“We think that to turn the tide to have a louder voice in Annapolis, these are the tools,” said Ellen Valentino, director of the Maryland chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, which is using Internet ads for the first time this year in Maryland. The group also sent out direct-mail messages this week, hoping to build opposition to the Wal-Mart bill.

The presession ad blitz isn’t new.

Last year, the state Republican Party put on a presession radio campaign targeting some lawmakers from Anne Arundel County for a looming vote on health maintenance organizations.

That campaign didn’t work; the legislature ultimately overrode that veto. Still, Republican strategists said early advertising is a good idea.

“We found they were very effective in informing constituents,” state party spokeswoman Audra Miller said of the radio ads, called “Operation Sustain.” Advertising early can help frame a debate, which is especially helpful for Republicans or other groups who don’t have a majority in the legislature, she said.

Smoke Free Maryland, a health advocacy group that wants lawmakers to pass a statewide indoor smoking ban, said early January is prime advertising time because voters are more likely to be paying attention to what the legislature will do.

“It’s a good time of year,” said the group’s director, Kari Appler. Smoke Free Maryland placed radio ads in Baltimore asking people to contact lawmakers, and posters are going up on buses and trains this week, Miss Appler said. “Legislation is at the forefront of people’s minds.”

But do the ads sway legislators?

Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, Montgomery County Democrat, said she has been peppered with letters in recent days on both sides of the Wal-Mart health care debate. But she said the letters have had little effect — she voted for the bill last year and will vote to override the veto again.

“When you’re on record voting for something, for you to change your mind, certainly in an election year, I don’t think that’s a good move,” Mrs. Hixson said.

Presession advertising isn’t going away, though, said Vincent DeMarco, president of Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative. His group has placed radio ads in favor of the Wal-Mart health care bill, ads that end with a message to “please call your state delegates.”

“It’s important to go right at the beginning, particularly this year with the override veto vote coming up,” he said. “You want to solidify support, and we think this ad will help do that.”

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