When Mayor Martin O'Malley went looking for a housing commissioner this fall, he wanted someone who could fix a department in disarray.
But the little that the people of Baltimore know of O'Malley's choice to tackle that task, Paul T. Graziano, is what they learned after his arrest Dec. 29 at a Fells Point bar: He made anti-gay slurs while drunk, he has admitted to having a drinking problem and he is entering an inpatient alcohol treatment program.
Housing activists in Baltimore, industry peers, past colleagues and others with whom Graziano has worked generally describe an intelligent, capable and dedicated housing official with a record of managerial success.
Even though he had been seen to drink excessively, his anti-gay remarks came as a surprise to those who know him.
Their accounts of Graziano's strengths, matched with the Baltimore housing department's many weaknesses, might help explain why O'Malley is so intent on keeping him, even in the face of intense criticism.
Housing officials across the country say that proof enough of Graziano's qualifications is his six-year tenure as general manager of the New York City Housing Authority, running the day-to-day operations of the nation's largest - and, some say, one of the best-led - housing departments.
"The senior management in the New York Housing Authority has a reputation that precedes them," said Bill Paterson, spokesman for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. "One would imagine that a lot of that credit has to go to Paul."
In New York, those who worked with Graziano described him as a dedicated administrator who regularly worked late into the night, but they didn't rate him stellar.
Kalman Finkel, who oversaw Graziano as one of three members of the New York City Housing Authority's board of commissioners, said Graziano was a solid general manager.
"Good. I wouldn't say great," Finkel said. "He had strengths and he had weaknesses."
Vito J. Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat and chairman of the state Assembly's Housing Committee, also gave a positive though not glowing appraisal.
"I would consider him a workaholic, a person that was very knowledgeable about housing issues," Lopez said.
He called Graziano an effective lobbyist for housing funds in Albany, the state capital, but said his style in working with others left something to be desired.
"He's overly intellectual," Lopez said. "He was very strong in his positions, and it was quite annoying to a number of people."
On the other hand, Finkel said, Graziano's weakness was that "sometimes, he wasn't tough enough," that he could have been more decisive at times. He said Graziano was best at dealing with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Indeed, sources say HUD may be coming through with more dollars for cash-strapped Baltimore with Graziano on the job, to pay for a consultant he wants to hire.
A senior HUD official, who asked not to be named, said of Graziano: "New York doesn't put up with shoddy people. The housing authority was one of the best-run in the country, and he ran it."
Graziano, 47, first took a senior management post in New York in 1993 after serving for 3 1/2 years as executive director of the Manchester, N.H., Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which also was rated highly by HUD under his leadership.
A 1976 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Graziano spent 13 years in Boston-area housing jobs before coming to Manchester, then a city of nearly 100,000 residents.
"He wanted us to be the very best that a medium-sized housing authority could be ... and he led us in that direction," said Grace Hicks-Grogan, who until Friday was executive director of the Manchester authority, and who worked for Graziano there a decade ago.
A `big-picture guy'
"He was a real big-picture guy," said another Manchester authority official and a friend of Graziano's, Richard P. Dunfey.
Hicks-Grogan and Dunfey described his record of accomplishments: He reorganized and, they say, improved the Manchester authority's bureaucracy, found ways to stretch existing funds, launched programs, such as a federally funded initiative to attack drug crime in public housing, and brought in more federal dollars.
"He modernized the operations of the agency," Dunfey said. "He just started from square one and retooled."
Many in Baltimore say the housing bureaucracy here could use the same treatment. Graziano is in charge of both the Department of Housing and Community Development, which has a broad mandate to improve neighborhoods, and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which operates public housing.
Graziano became available for the housing post because of a political shake-up in New York. A new chairman of the housing authority arrived on the job in 1999 and replaced Graziano with a new general manager early last year, keeping him on as a consultant.