Colvin rose through city ranks to reach state Cabinet position Maryland Newsmaker

December 06, 1991|By Sandy Banisky

Something's wrong with the welfare system, Carolyn Colvin says. It's addictive. It doesn't push poor people hard enough toward self-sufficiency. It dispenses checks without holding the recipients accountable. It's a problem that needs solving.

Last week, Ms. Colvin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, proposed a plan that would change drastically how welfare benefits are handed out. Unless recipients get their children to school, seek regular medical care and pay their rent on time, their monthly benefits would be at risk of being cut.

That such a profound change would be proposed by Carolyn Colvin -- an administrator, not a social theoretician -- might surprise some.

It did not surprise the people who have worked with her over more than 20 years in government. "She's just a very good problem-solver," said Jim Smith, who first worked with her 20 years ago, when he was an aide to then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer and she worked in the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. Mr. Smith later recruited her to work in the campaigns of Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D.-Md., and the first gubernatorial campaign of Mr. Schaefer.

"She's not a dreamer or an abstract thinker at all. She's very hands-on, practical. She's one of the best managers I've ever met. She keeps fiddling away, trying to fix things."

She's also an unpretentious woman who says she likes to set goals and then work her way through to the finish. Witness her education: for 14 years, Ms. Colvin worked days and rode buses to Morgan State University at night, until she had both undergraduate and master's degrees in business.

For many of those years, she had to ride two buses, transferring downtown, to get home to Anne Arundel County.

"I'd sleep until we got to my stop," she says. "Then the driver would wake me up.

"I was the first person in my family to go to college. I remember my aunt sending me dollar bills so old you could barely see the 1s, because she wanted to help me."

At home, she was a single parent rearing two young sons with the help of her extended family. At work, Ms. Colvin, who is now 49, likes to say she spent 20 years going from secretary to Secretary -- from clerk-typist in the Baltimore school system to head of a state agency that provides an array of services to needy Marylanders.

Along the way, she rose through the ranks of the city housing and health departments, with detours to work in the 1982 campaign of Senator Sarbanes, followed by two years running constituent services for him.

In 1986, she left city government again to become deputy director of William Donald Schaefer's first gubernatorial campaign.

"She's very thoughtful, caring," says Dr. Susan Guarnieri, former city health commissioner who now is the medical director at the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

For three years, Ms. Colvin served as Dr. Guarnieri's deputy. "I trusted her. There was definitely a creativity there."

In 1988, Governor Schaefer named Ms. Colvin deputy secretary of the state Human Resources Department. In July 1989, she became secretary.

"I think people were a little concerned that I didn't have a social-work background," Ms. Colvin says. "But I don't believe [that] as the head of an agency you need a social worker. I think what you need is a good, strong manager."

And so she set out to reassess the sprawling system that sends out welfare checks, cares for foster children, refers people to counseling, provides food stamps.

"I was always challenged by the fact that people didn't believe human resources could be run in a businesslike manner," she says.

She asks her staff for ideas on new ways to run the department. Why can't the agency collect fees for some of its services from the working people it serves? Why can't some of the work be contracted out to private firms, which might be able to do the job more efficiently than the state bureaucracy?

"What I've said to staff is, 'Look at every program we have and give me the pros and cons of privatization. Look at every agency we have and look at the pros and cons of fee collection. If you were building our organization [from scratch] today, what would it look like?' "

From brainstorming sessions with staff, she pieced together the welfare proposal offered last week.

"I really believe we have a greater responsibility than to dispense a check and say we've done our part," she says. "We have done something wrong in this country, and we need to change it. . . . We really have been Big Daddy too much."

She believes people must be encouraged to act responsibly. Children must be sent to school.

"Most parents should want their kids to have some opportunities in this life, and you can't have it if you don't go to school," she says.

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