Governor's ally heads board of regents As a close friend, Billingsley has unusual access

September 24, 1995|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Within Gov. Parris N. Glendening's inner circle of advisers, Lance W. Billingsley has always held a special place.

Not only is he the governor's family attorney and one of his closest friends, he is the man who introduced the College Park professor to real-world politics. He taught him who you had to know, what you needed to know and how to win.

In return, Mr. Billingsley has enjoyed access to Mr. Glendening with a capital A. When Mr. Glendening was Prince George's County executive, that connection generated power and money for Mr. Billingsley and his highly successful law practice -- to an extent that some of the administration's critics found unseemly.

Nevertheless, when Mr. Glendening was elected governor, Mr. Billingsley could have had his pick of jobs in the administration. Only one interested him, and it wasn't in Annapolis, in the Cabinet or even as a lobbyist.

Enter the newest chairman of the University of Maryland System's board of regents, the 17-member committee that governs College Park, 10 other campuses and two research institutes.

Mr. Glendening, the longtime academician who until recently earned his living as a University of Maryland professor explaining political theory to underclassmen, recognized the irony of the appointment.

"He was the one who was the political technician involved in the real world of politics," the governor said. "It's funny now that I'm in politics and we're asking him to go into education."

He 'wasn't college material'

But for those who know Mr. Billingsley, the job makes perfect sense. It was in College Park that a teen-ager who used to cut classes, whose father left when he was 6, and who fought in a street gang in his native Buffalo, N.Y., discovered the joys of ambition and politics.

"He was counseled in high school that he wasn't college material and should probably join the Army," said his wife, Carolyn, who met him when both were juniors at Maryland. "Going to the University of Maryland was a turning point in his life. He saw opportunities that he hadn't imagined before."

Still lean and active at 55, Mr. Billingsley could easily pass for 40. He swims three days a week, lifts weights two, bikes up to 50 miles three or four. He sports the tan and thick dark hair of a Kennedy, writes with a $150 Mont Blanc pen and dresses impeccably.

Mr. Billingsley doesn't ski, he competes downhill. He doesn't drive a car, he takes racing lessons. As a senior at Maryland, he decided to try out for varsity soccer -- and made it on a team that went to the national championship.

"I'm a competitive person," said Mr. Billingsley, a College Park resident and father of three grown children. "College wasn't high school. It was a challenge. It was exciting."

Mr. Billingsley met Mr. Glendening when both were in the Prince George's Jaycees more than a quarter-century ago. Mr. Glendening was a College Park professor with an interest in public service. Mr. Billingsley was already well-connected to the county's Democratic machine run by Peter F. O'Malley and Steny H. Hoyer.

He knew Mr. Hoyer from their days together in student government at Maryland. They were reunited in the Young Democrats, a group of baby boomers unwilling to wait until middle age to have a say in party affairs. Another former classmate -- Mr. Billingsley's fraternity "little brother" -- was Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., now president of the state Senate.

"There was a strong movement for young people to be involved," recalled Mr. Billingsley, who received a bachelor's degree in economics from Maryland in 1961. "We were banding together. We were getting a say in the political process much earlier than generations before had."

In 1970, after a falling-out with the O'Malley-Hoyer organization, Mr. Billingsley recruited Mr. Glendening to run with him for the county's Democratic Central Committee. Mr. Glendening lost. Mr. Billingsley won.

After six years as committee chairman, Mr. Billingsley bowed out of politics in 1980. It proved to be a short vacation. Mr. Glendening, having served on the Hyattsville City Council and Prince George's County Council, wanted to run for county executive. He asked Mr. Billingsley to manage his campaign.

It struck Mr. Billingsley as a quixotic endeavor. Popular Republican Lawrence J. Hogan looked like a shoo-in for re-election. But when Mr. Hogan decided to run for the U.S. Senate instead, Mr. Glendening was well-positioned for victory.

"Fate smiled on us," Mr. Billingsley said. "There were other, more established candidates, more logical choices than Parris. But we had taken the field early [before Mr. Hogan left the race] and it was difficult for anyone to take it away from us."

Fortune also had a big grin for Mr. Billingsley. Shortly after Mr. Glendening took office, his administration steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal work to Mr. Billingsley's firm to oversee bond issues.

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