The quiet power of Furlong Baldwin

January 30, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

Furlong Baldwin is impatient. Time is precious, and his agenda keeps growing.

He's got to help raise $750 million or so for the Johns Hopkins Institutions.

He's got to run the Mercantile bank, of course, and to make life difficult for its competitors. He must guard against the "lunacy" of tax increases by the legislature. And he's got parties to throw.

Part banker, part politician, part Welcome Wagon host, Mr. Baldwin may well be Maryland's most feverishly active and most powerful private citizen.

To many, he is an unknown figure and, indeed, he prefers to work in private. Yet he touches many aspects of life in the state from the Orioles to the symphony, from health care reform to debutante balls.

With his gray hair smoothed back to its trademark sheen, his lanky frame encased in pinstripes and a name straight from the Social Register, Henry Furlong Baldwin could make 1994 the capstone of a career that already seems a unique amalgam of the political and financial arts.

"He is the consummate banker, the consummate captain of industry," says John P. Bowers Jr. of the Maryland Bankers' Association. "He is clearly the dean of the Baltimore business community and the most active in political circles. He doesn't stand in anyone's shadow."

He'd like to play an important part in choosing Maryland's governor this year, and he's ready as always to raise the necessary money. At the same time, he'll be trying to persuade friends and colleagues to dig deeply into their pockets for the Hopkins hospital and university, which he calls the crown jewels of the city.

Known to insiders by the unbankerly nickname of Baldy, he is regarded as an unreconstructed blue blood. Though the Mercantile contributes to a range of community organizations -- it won't disclose how much it gives or to whom -- Mr. Baldwin's own causes tend to be elite institutions and what he calls "the cultural infrastructure."

Observing that the famous hospital he serves as board chairman and the university now have a $2.2-billion annual budget, he said in a recent interview, "They have been the only growth industry in Baltimore -- in addition to their intellectual value."

The state of Maryland recently committed more than $30 million to a new cancer center at Hopkins -- partly as a result of Mr. Baldwin's good offices. He raised $40 million in public and private funds to save the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra because he believes it's so important to the community -- and particularly to Hopkins doctors and professors. He caters to rich businessmen because, he says, they are crucial to a prosperous future and are underappreciated.

Critics say his priorities are misplaced and outdated. As a member of the General Assembly's Spending Affordability Committee -- an advisory group of elected officials and private individuals -- his views frequently have been in conflict with those of Gov. William Donald Schaefer. The governor grumbles that someone who makes more than $700,000 a year can have so much impact on the income of state workers and the meager allowances of welfare mothers.

A man who despises taxes more than talk show host Rush Limbaugh, Mr. Baldwin once tried to make Maryland a haven for millionaires. With former Orioles owner Eli S. Jacobs by his side, he urged the governor to ease or eliminate state capital gains taxes. Mr. Schaefer said no.

At 62, Mr. Baldwin prevails as one of the last home-grown leaders of a locally owned bank. Many of the bank's competitors have been purchased by out-of-state or foreign concerns, and many old line Baltimore businesses have been swallowed by corporations headquartered elsewhere.

This hemorrhage of talent, decision-making authority and money leaves Mr. Baldwin as one of the few local businessmen who can write a check for charity without getting approval from Cincinnati, Charlotte, N.C., or Dublin, Ireland. He worries that his retirement in a few years will widen what he sees as a calamitous leadership gap in Maryland.

For the present, though, he's a power center -- and an unlikely mixture of charm and cantankerousness.

"He can terrify people or charm people, whatever it takes," says Robert R. Neall, the Anne Arundel county executive. "He can be the ultimate authority figure or a guy who can make an 88-year-old lady feel like she's Lady Di."

Indeed, he can be most solicitous, sending hand-written notes to legislators who vote his way, attending a guest stricken with seasickness and personally calling secretaries to be sure their bosses will attend some function or other.

His detractors -- colleagues in business, politicians, competitors and civic leaders, among them -- say he's arrogant and dismissive of people who fall below his station in life.

Those Mr. Baldwin regards as minor players he calls "shoe salesmen." He spins off snide comments, and seems not to care who hears. Told that a reporter had asked the state bank commissioner, Marjorie Muller, how The Merc had survived recent banking calamities, he said, "I'm not sure she'd know."

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