Rawlings now has the power to help his hometown, but. . .

November 17, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

As his father lay near death two months ago, Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings hurried to the hospital to share news that would make the elderly man proud.

"He blinked his eyes when I told him that the son he raised in the Edgar Allan Poe projects had become chairman of the Appropriations Committee," Mr. Rawlings says softly, adding that he thinks his father understood.

Mr. Rawlings' appointment in September as the first black ever to head a major money committee in Maryland's General Assembly is the capstone of a remarkable, almost unintended, political career.

The 55-year-old, four-term Democrat from West Baltimore has fought for years for civil rights, for jobs and affordable housing. Now, he finds himself in a powerful position to do something about the problems that face his impoverished constituents and his financially stressed city.

Trouble is, there's little money left with which to do anything.

Mr. Rawlings takes control of Appropriations after nearly three years of budgetary retrenchment. Moreover, the man who put him in the job, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., is a conservative Eastern Shoreman who wants to shrink state government even further.

Instead of pushing for programs to improve the lot of welfare mothers or fight violent crime, Mr. Rawlings may find himself having to cut such programs, or at best trying to defend them from further reductions.

"I know what the realities are. I know there will be some pain," he says, fully aware he will now play a key role in deciding how that pain is distributed. "But I just don't believe the pain ought to be disproportionate to some communities."

He already is in the thick of a fight with suburban Washington counties over a plan to eliminate a $147 million state program that pays Social Security taxes for teachers, librarians and community college employees. The reduction is a key element of the governor's broader plan to erase a $450 million deficit.

Baltimore officials are not fighting the loss of the Social Security program because alternatives could hurt the city even more. It is only a matter of time, however, before Mr. Rawlings is forced to choose between something he or his city wants, but that the House leadership does not.

Then, say some of his many admirers, it will depend on which Mr. Rawlings shows up.

One is an independent, compassionate legislator who helped found the Low Income Housing Coalition, the Maryland Education Coalition, the Maryland Alliance for the Poor and the Legislative Black Caucus.

The other is the pragmatic, deft politician who can be nimbly evasive when needs dictate.

"He's going to do what he's told," predicts a cynical Del. Louis L. DePazzo, a Baltimore County Democrat and Appropriations seatmate of Mr. Rawlings. Mr. Rawlings bristles at the suggestion he would blindly take orders. But he says he recognizes he has to represent interests of the entire state, not just Baltimore or his 40th Legislative District.

"Anyone who knows Pete Rawlings knows I'm not a take-order kind of person," he says. "I'm aware the speaker is the speaker, and give deference to that fact. But the speaker knows -- and the governor knows -- I will argue for and defend persons who are too often left out."

Perhaps the worst thing people say about Mr. Rawlings is that he sometimes uses his legislative position to squeeze anyone he can for jobs for African-Americans. Most recently, he and other black lawmakers were criticized for heavy-handed lobbying for a black-run firm that is trying to retain the state's lucrative vehicle emissions-testing contract.

"That's the worst?" Mr. Rawlings asks with mock astonishment, a mischievous grin appearing. "I think that is very responsible behavior. People complain about crime, or lack of stability in the black family, or of high pregnancy rates, or teen-age dropouts. To me, that is all attributable to a lack of an economy."

"I'm angry that more aren't pressing for more economic activity."

Trained as a mathematician with degrees from Morgan State and the University of Wisconsin, Pete Rawlings is now assistant to the president of Baltimore City Community College.

His involvement in politics took root from an almost naive recognition of racial discrimination.

When a math instructor at Morgan State, Mr. Rawlings was stunned when several of his best students were denied national scholarships. He suspected race was the motive.

That awareness blossomed, he says, when he moved to the University of Maryland Baltimore County and realized how few blacks were on the faculty. The bus that could have brought black students from Baltimore to the predominantly white school stopped a mile short of the campus.

He helped form the UMBC Black Caucus of Faculty and Staff, a movement that would become a system-wide black caucus within the University of Maryland and ultimately lead to a successful challenge of the state's college-desegregation plans.

Mr. Rawlings eventually became head of a health-advocacy group, a job that took him to Annapolis. There, he realized he could accomplish more from the inside.

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