Mathew J. Palmer expects to bring a political insider’s view of Annapolis to the Maryland Chamber of Commerce in his new role as senior vice president of government affairs.
Palmer, 36, comes to the chamber as it works to reshape the legislative team once led by Ronald Wineholt, who left this fall.
“I want to do more positive things, things that make Maryland more competitive, and I think the chamber has that vision,” Palmer said. “There’s this thought that the chamber says ‘no’ a lot and hasn’t been as proactive as it was in the past.”
Palmer said he wants to create a relationship between the state government and the chamber that will encourage state officials to call the chamber when business issues arise.
“I want us in that discussion,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight, but we need to move toward that.”
The chamber needs to be more open and work with government throughout the year so that both sides can solve longstanding issues, said Kathleen Snyder, CEO of the chamber.
She said it has been nine years since the chamber had both its lobbyists leave at once, so this gives the organization the opportunity to change how it lobbies.
“Matt has knowledge of how the General Assembly works and a working relationship with key legislators,” Snyder said.
Palmer is a former chief of staff for state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton and was associate director of state affairs at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
The ability to see things happening is what draws him to the political arena, Palmer said. With the chamber, he wants to participate in making Maryland a more economically viable state.
‘No idea what I was getting into’
Palmer has spent most of his life in Maryland, growing up in Berlin and graduating from Salisbury University. It was there that he got his first taste of politics, interning with the General Assembly for a session while working toward his political science degree.
Hooked, Palmer followed his passion to Arlington, Va., where he joined Advantage, a political marketing firm that worked mostly with the Republican Party.
“I was the first person they ever hired and I had no idea what I was getting into,” Palmer said. He fell under the wing of Jeff Butzke and Margaret Parker Alexander.
While working for them, Palmer was able to experience the political process from both the campaigning and the finance side.
“On the financing side, it’s all about making relationships,” he said. “But on the campaigning side, I learned there was a wide spectrum on what Republicans looked like in each state. You wouldn’t have found greater discrepancies. You had to change your talking points in each area.”
Palmer, who eventually became a senior account executive, also was responsible for coordinating the tickets and helping organize Republican National Committee presidential galas from 2001 to 2003. He took over following a spate of problems in previous galas, working on his own to develop a spreadsheet to manage everything.
“It probably wasn’t the best method, but it worked for three years,” he said. “That way nobody else could change anything after you put it in. That was a problem in the past.”
While Palmer said he still enjoys the “political game,” he is distressed that it has become so polarized that people “can’t get things done.” He praised Maryland legislators for working together to find a middle ground.
But after four years of working “24/7” for Advantage, Palmer wanted something else. He found it with Pipkin’s financing staff, joining Pipkin’s U.S. Senate run in the last seven months of the unsuccessful 2004 campaign. Palmer helped the campaign raise more than $668,000, which at the time was the most ever by a GOP U.S. Senate candidate in Maryland, he said. Pipkin’s campaign achieved it through a robust commercial mail program that distrubuted more than 250,000 in-house fundraising pieces and staging 40 events.
A new ER in Centreville
Palmer became Pipkin’s chief of staff in 2006. He helped him create a new free-standing emergency room in Centreville that opened in 2009.
“It was a testament to E.J.’s work with the University [of Maryland] Medical System,” Palmer said.
Pipkin’s staff crafted legislation to overcome uncertainty among several state medical groups, such as the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, state health care commission and the Health Services Cost Review Commission, Palmer said. Some of the groups worried about having too many free-standing emergency rooms in the state, while others feared another one would drive up rates.
Pipkin and his staff came up with legislation to meet the state’s needs and those of Pipkin’s Queen Anne’s County constituency.
“It was my first foray into really walking uphill,” Palmer said.
Having done a lot of work with health care while serving on Pipkin’s staff, Palmer then turned to Johns Hopkins, where its state affairs director, Thomas Lewis, helped him.
“I had a lot of respect for the university and I felt I could learn a lot from him,” Palmer said.
While at the university, Palmer tackled issues such as economic development, transportation, energy and budgets.
A big part of the job was helping legislators understand what certain state funds went toward, Palmer said. About 85 percent go toward financial aid for Maryland students, while the rest goes for programs to improve higher education, he said.
“The legislature was put in a very bad situation when it came to cuts,” Palmer said, adding that Maryland has done an “amazing” job of supporting higher education when other states have cut back.
This perspective reflects what John Stierhoff of the Venable law firm in Baltimore calls Palmer’s ability to “synthesize a lot of viewpoints into good policy.”
“He has a calm demeanor and an ability to work with people on different viewpoints,” said Stierhoff, who has done lobby work alongside Palmer for six years. “It’s why he’s going to be really well-suited to his position at the chamber.”
Stierhoff also spoke highly of Palmer’s tennis prowess. Unfortunately, Palmer has not been playing much since he tore a knee ligament during a team tournament in September. He plans to have surgery after his wedding to Robyn Scott in June.
Palmer had actually served on the chamber’s legislative committee for several years when he worked at Hopkins, leading Snyder to call him a “known candidate.”
As he looks toward the 2013 session, Palmer said he expects to deal with issues such as finding more transportation funding, bringing down the state’s corporate income tax, minimum wages and civil liability issues.
When it comes to transportation funding, the state needs to look at private-public partnerships as well as increasing the fuel tax, he said.
He also said the state needs to work harder to combat the perception that it is not doing enough to streamline regulatory processes.
Palmer said the state and businesses also must cooperate more to better balance the state’s reliance on federal dollars so it can become more competitive in the corporate world.