Henson: Rainmaker in the Rain

March 06, 1993

The conflict-of-interest potential in Daniel P. Henson's nomination for Baltimore City's housing commissioner

underscores how intertwined the Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse development empire has become with the Schmoke administration.

By doing difficult but symbolically important inner-city rehabilitation projects for the city since William Donald Schaefer's rule, that firm has carved a special niche. Meanwhile, its executives generously volunteer their time for the Schmoke administration. President Bill Struever chairs a mayoral task force on economic development, which is to issue its report next month. Mr. Henson, another principal in the firm, is among the mayor's few, truly close political confidants.

All this is well known. It never was a serious problem until thiweek, when the mayor named Mr. Henson to take over the city's housing department and its troubled twin, the agency managing public housing. All of a sudden, Mr. Henson would be in a position to decide -- or influence -- numerous projects affecting .. the Struever company (and his own firm, the Henson Co.) or their present, past or future associates.

Lawyers are now trying to remove these conflict-of-interest complications. But even if they are successful, the mayor himself acknowledges "there clearly will be some projects where [Mr. Henson] cannot be involved in decision making."

It is a tribute to Mr. Henson's personal qualities that the Schmoke administration is undertaking this difficult legal effort. After early experience as a federal manager in Washington and Philadelphia, he built a reputation as a skillful developer of sensitive projects. In business as well as in politics, Mr. Henson -- became known as a rainmaker.

The city's housing mess is so serious Mayor Schmoke desperately wants a man who is sure to make things happen.

Never before has a developer been proposed as the city's housing chief. Yet this is exactly what Baltimore needs: a man who will get numerous long-stalled projects moving and completed, who will reinvigorate the demoralized housing bureaucracies and who will re-establish private developers' faith doing business with the city.

For too long, the city's housing department has been operated as if it were an urban renewal agency. It used to be one, but those days are long gone. Today, it must have the flexibility to deal with new challenges. It particularly needs to establish clear, streamlined and predictable processes that will reattract private-sector investors to the city.

Mr. Henson is a solid candidate to achieve all this -- but only if his conflict-of-interest problems can be put fully to rest.

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