'Bean counter' rises to center of power State's budget chief shuns publicity

June 24, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

When only three or four people in Maryland knew the Cleveland Browns would move to Baltimore, one of them was Fred Puddester.

When Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke meet for bare-knuckle negotiations on the future of the Baltimore school system, one of the handful of players in the room is Fred Puddester. And if the governor delivers a much-desired tax cut next year, it will mean Puddester found the spending cuts to make it possible.

So who is this fellow with the Dickensian name and the knack for flying under the radar of publicity?

Since June 12, Frederick W. Puddester has been Maryland's secretary of budget and fiscal planning. But Annapolis insiders say that even before he achieved Cabinet rank, this self-described "bean counter" had already emerged as one of the three most powerful figures in the Glendening administration -- along with chief of staff Major F. Riddick Jr. and the governor himself.

"Fred is certainly a very key player in all meetings having to do with the state budget -- which is virtually all meetings," said David Nevins, an Owings Mills public relations executive who is a close political associate of Glendening.

Though he is the newest member of the Glendening Cabinet, Puddester has joined it as first among supposed equals. He is the only Cabinet secretary who reports directly to the governor. His predecessor, Marita B. Brown, reported to the governor through a deputy chief of staff named Puddester.

Annapolis veterans say the 41-year-old career Maryland government worker has risen through the ranks on the strength of his personality, credibility and budget wizardry.

"He can probably recite the budget in his sleep," said state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat.

Puddester's skills go far beyond crunching numbers, however. He is regarded as an effective conciliator and shrewd deal maker and has played a critical role in the Glendening administration's successes without becoming identified with its missteps.

Legislators and lobbyists said he played a critical behind-the-scenes role in putting together the administration's two football stadium deals and selling the package to the General Assembly. A Glendening adviser said Puddester was the key player in putting together the $4.25 million deal that kept the famous Lucas art collection in Baltimore.

What is most remarkable about Puddester's rapid rise is that he has accomplished it while making few waves and even fewer enemies. "If you want to create a difficult assignment for someone, tell them to go out and find a Fred Puddester detractor," said Joel Rozner, an Annapolis lobbyist who served as Glendening's chief of staff when he was Prince George's County executive.

Even partisan Republicans say they like him, trust him and wish he were on their side.

Del. Martha S. Klima, a veteran Baltimore County Republican who has dealt with Puddester as a member of the Appropriations Committee, said she trusts him always to give her the straight facts regardless of partisan differences. "He's a truth-teller," she said.

Even Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Republican firebrand who delights in savaging the administration, said he regards Puddester as "very competent."

The closest the Howard County legislator could come to criticism was an observation that "Fred is very good at hiding what the administration does not want its adversaries to find."

Legislators and others frequently mention Puddester's sense of humor and ability to get along with a broad range of people.

Rozner, who represents the Washington Redskins, said Puddester managed to find common ground with team owner Jack Kent Cooke in their mutual love of sports.

Now, after long and sometimes contentious negotiations with the administration over construction of a football stadium in Prince George's County, the strong-willed, often prickly Cooke has nothing but praise for Puddester.

"He was one of the vital factors in concluding the deal. I have the utmost admiration for his abilities and a clear-cut affection for his personality," Cooke said.

But don't mistake Puddester's affability for wimpiness, said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat who crossed swords with him over the administration's stadium plans.

"He's not going to be bullied and he'll tell you that if you're kicking his dog, there'll be repercussions," said Poole, who added that his own influence with the administration diminished because of his opposition.

But Poole said that chill has neither dimmed his professional admiration for Puddester nor poisoned their personal relations. "Fred had to be about as pivotal a player as possible in delivering the stadium," said Poole.

The target of these bouquets would just as soon dodge them.

Puddester had never been reclusive or inaccessible, but a newspaper profile about himself was something he had eluded before and clearly hoped to elude again.

"He likes to be behind the scenes," said Nevins.

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