A quiet mover and shaker

Adviser: Behind the scenes in Baltimore's power network is lawyer Richard O. Berndt, trusted by politicians and archbishops.

May 06, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein and Tom Pelton | Gady A. Epstein and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Just after Martin O'Malley announced his long-shot campaign for mayor of Baltimore in June 1999, a half-dozen influential bankers and business leaders pressured the young city councilman to drop out of the race.

His back against the wall, O'Malley dropped a name that was his only ace. But playing that one card changed the whole game, as it has time and time again for some of the state's most powerful public figures.

"They laid out some polling material and said I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell," recalled O'Malley. "I said, `Well, then you'd better call Rick Berndt and ask him why he's backing a loser. Because I've never known Rick to back a loser.'"

Although he is hardly known to the public, Richard Olaf Berndt, a 58-year-old Baltimore lawyer, has been an influential behind-the-scenes adviser and problem solver for archbishops, U.S. senators, congressmen and mayors over the past three decades.

Berndt is the attorney and trusted adviser of Cardinal William H. Keeler and a keen political strategist and fund-raiser who knows how to pick and make winners, earning him an unofficial nickname: "the political pope of Baltimore," as Del. Howard P. Rawlings puts it.

Often, when the city's powerful or would-be powerful need help or advice, they come to Berndt.

A cerebral, self-assured man who offers what friends call "quiet counsel," Berndt lacks the flashiness or bravado of some in political circles, choosing instead to make his mark in relative anonymity.

Without making headlines, Berndt played an important role in moving the Baltimore Archdiocese into the foreground on civil rights, rebuilding the Inner Harbor in the 1970s, shaping the campaigns and policies of leading Democrats, pushing a major statewide gun control measure and negotiating the huge Inner Harbor East waterfront development.

"If I had a list of the most important people in Baltimore, Rick would be near the top of the list," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is O'Malley's father-in-law. "He's a low-key person who makes things happen."

So it was when city school board Vice Chairman C. William Struever came to his friend Berndt recently, asking for help in getting a job for James D. Apicella, fiance of Superintendent Carmen V. Russo.

Berndt wrote a letter to the heads of four foundations, asking that they provide funding for a job at Coppin State College for Apicella, a former basketball coach who lives in Florida.

It was the kind of request that's meant to be handled behind the scenes, out of the public eye, where Berndt operates best. But then the letter became public in a Sun article, an unusual and unwelcome breach in 30 years of carefully guarded privacy.

His friends were not surprised that he would try to help a city leader's friend get a job, but some were perplexed that he would do so in writing, breaking a fundamental rule of the game he knows so well: Never write what you can say over the phone; never say anything over the phone that you can say with a wink and a nod.

Berndt met with Sun reporters last week but declined to be quoted for this article other than to address the Apicella letter.

"I was asked to help a number of people who were relocating a good person from [Florida] to Baltimore," said Berndt, weighing his words carefully. "He is a very important person in the life of the head of our school system. I wanted to help."

The letter provided a rare, illuminating glimpse of Baltimore's powerful at work. But it only hinted at Berndt's distinctive role in that network, a private man at the intersection of government officials, captains of industry and the Roman Catholic Church.

Berndt's civic and political power, his friends and others say, flows in part from his association with the church. His longtime status as counsel to Baltimore's archbishops earned him a vast network of connections in the Catholic community, immense credibility with Baltimore's elite - and, like the archdiocese's attorneys who came before him, a coveted seat on the board of Mercantile Bankshares Corp., a symbol of the city's old-line establishment.

Yet his is a largely secret history, unknown to most but the civic and political leaders who have crossed paths with him over the years. Berndt has preferred to remain in the shadows of the public figures he counsels.

"I don't think he wants a high profile. He's avoided it. God knows he could have it if he wanted it," said Joseph D. Tydings, a friend and former U.S. senator. "Sometimes it's easier to get things done when you don't have a high profile."

Berndt, who lives in Roland Park with his wife, Rita, has a taciturn, contemplative demeanor that befits his desire for a low profile. Tortoise-shell reading glasses dangle from a granny strap around his neck, and he speaks in a thoughtful, measured clip, though his blue-green eyes convey an intensity and self-confidence that cannot be missed.

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