Struever also was close to former mayors Kurt L. Schmoke and William Donald Schaefer, though the two were political rivals. Schaefer says he respects Struever's resourcefulness and tenacity.
"People said he was supposed to go bankrupt," Schaefer says, reflecting the fact that many urban rehab firms in the city went under in the 1970s and 1980s. "But Struever survived because he was smart, built his business slowly and particularly because he knew how to work with the political people."
Since 1995, Struever, his development firm and partners have contributed at least $92,000 to Democratic politicians and committees. That includes $51,859 in "soft money" to the Democratic National Committee, $8,000 to Al Gore's campaign for president, $3,250 to the Democratic State Central Committee, $2,500 to Townsend, and $1,600 to Glendening, records show.
Over the same period, the state, city and federal governments have approved at least $126 million in grants, loans, tax credits and bonds for projects developed by Struever partnerships, records show. That amount accounts for nearly half of the $262 million cost of the 13 projects Struever has developed in the city since 1995.
Although Struever is often praised for his creativity, some say his real artistry is working the government to win taxpayer money.
"He's got his heart on the good of the city. But the city has been very good to him as well. He's gotten a lot of freebies," says City Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo. "He comes into a meeting in jeans and an open shirt, trying to come across as the poor man of business, and it works to his benefit when he asks for subsidies."
For his part, Struever claims that his political activity has nothing to do with his development work. But his second wife, Anne R. Riggle, who married Struever in 1990 and filed for divorce against him in September 1999, says the couple threw parties almost weekly at their waterfront penthouse to entertain politicians and friends. The guests, she says, often included some of the most powerful people in the state: Townsend, Schmoke, state Sen. Barbara Hoffman and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. Once the couple had Vice President Al Gore over for dinner.
"When you are a developer, a big part of getting your projects done is political connections. I entertained a lot for politicians," says Riggle, a former financial manager for an investment firm.
Reed Cordish, vice president for development of the Cordish Co., a competing Baltimore development firm, says: "Struever is the absolute best at that - getting money from the city, state and feds. The taxpayers pay in the end."
David F. Tufaro, developer of a project to convert the vacant Montgomery Ward building in southern Baltimore into offices, says he admires Struever's often successful efforts to revive city neighborhoods. But Tufaro also says that Struever's use of political friendships and public subsidies encourage an escalating battle for government money among developers.
"At this point in his career, I don't even think he knows how to do a project without major public subsidies," says Tufaro, a Republican who ran for mayor against O'Malley in 1999. "It does discourage me from doing certain types of projects in the city. I don't feel it's a level playing field, because it's too damn political."
Struever points out that many developments, including Tufaro's Montgomery Ward project, require tens of millions of dollars in government assistance to build highway entrance ramps. Other developers hit up the city for free land or tax breaks, Struever says. Moreover, he says, it's unfair to imply a connection between his campaign contributions and use of government funding, most of which comes from programs available to any developer who wants to build low-income housing or renovate historic buildings.
"We are proud of doing really tough urban projects that other people don't want to do, and often these require public support," Struever says. "We don't get any special preference in using these programs. And we try to get as much private funding as possible."
As for his campaign contributions, he says they merely reflect his philosophical support for the Democratic Party, which tends to endorse policies that help urban schools.
"Am I a good Democrat?" he asks. "Yes. You can condemn me for that."
`Bill is a romantic'
Five nineteen N. Charles St. is a 185-year-old brick, federal-style building with pillars flanking the door. Until Struever Bros. moves into its new offices in Tide Point this spring, abandoning the historic but troubled Mount Vernon neighborhood for the waterfront, this is the company's headquarters, and a second home for Bill Struever.