In meetings, associates say, he is coolheaded and doesn't interject himself into every discussion, but when he does speak, he tends to be forthright, even blunt.
Politicians say they turn to him because he has a logical manner of dissecting problems, a sound ethical compass, the backbone to tell people what they don't want to hear, a long list of fund-raising contacts and a competitive drive that makes him a formidable ally.
Friends and people close to Berndt's family describe this driven nature in telling his story: an athletic, earnest and calculating son of German immigrant bakers who grew up making all the right friends - and many of them.
His parents, Olaf and Matilda (Amrhein), ran the Amrhein Bros. Baking Co. in West Baltimore.
Berndt's parents were friendly with another baker who much later would become an extremely wealthy client of his: John Paterakis Sr., now one of the city's most influential campaign contributors and developers.
After attending Mount St. Joseph High School and Villanova University, Berndt went to the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, where he met classmate Benjamin L. Cardin and forged one of his first friendships with a political family. "He's one of my closest political advisers," said Cardin, a Democratic congressman from Baltimore.
In 1967, as Berndt was about to graduate from law school, a friend suggested he apply to work with a lawyer named Francis X. Gallagher. It would prove a life-transforming career move.
Gallagher was one of the most respected public figures of Baltimore in his time. He was the lawyer for Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan, and the two worked together to advance progressive political causes.
"Frank Gallagher and then Rick Berndt established, I think, very clearly that the church would be in favor of civil rights," said Peter N. Marudas, a friend of Berndt's and chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. "And that's very important in this state, which has had a history of resistance."
Gallagher was also an influential player in state politics and introduced Berndt to his friend Sarbanes. Berndt showed that he was a quick study in politics, running Sarbanes' successful first campaign for Congress in 1970.
Another future U.S. senator, neighborhood activist Barbara A. Mikulski, was impressed enough to come to Berndt for advice before she ran for City Council in 1971.
Berndt was devoted to his mentor Gallagher - a charming, gregarious man - who many thought might be mayor or governor someday. But Gallagher died of a heart attack in 1972 at age 43, and the job of running his firm - Gallagher, Evelius & Jones - fell to Berndt, who was not yet 30.
The question of who would take over Gallagher's signature client, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was not as easily settled.
"Every Catholic lawyer in Baltimore thinks he should have that job," said Joseph G. Finnerty Jr., who was a partner with Gallagher at the firm when Berndt was a young lawyer there. "A good number of them attempted to get it after Frank died."
But Berndt won Shehan's confidence and the job of a lifetime for a devout Catholic lawyer.
"Becoming the archbishop's counsel is what made this guy's career," Finnerty said. "This is a very Catholic town, so a person who holds that position has an enormous amount of prestige and visibility in Baltimore, and he was pretty young."
When Keeler moved to Baltimore to become archbishop in 1989, he turned to Berndt to introduce him to the city's issues and people.
"He's a very wise person, a very thoughtful person, and he has an excellent mind. It's not a surprise to me that many people look at him as a problem solver," Keeler said.
To reward Berndt for his volunteer work for the archdiocese, which included raising millions of dollars to repair churches and build schools, Keeler bestowed on him in 1994 one of the highest honors the church can give to a layperson: the rank of knight commander in the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great.
From his prestigious position with the church, and from his early political friendships with Sarbanes, Mikulski and Cardin, Berndt built his career and reputation through three decades as a civic activist - with, his friends say, a single-minded motivation of doing what he felt was in the best interests of Baltimore.
A skillful tactician
In the political arena, Berndt proved his mettle as a skillful tactician - and cemented his place in then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer's inner circle - with his spirited campaign for Inner Harbor redevelopment in 1979.
Schaefer and developer James W. Rouse planned to build an L-shaped complex of restaurants and shops beside the Inner Harbor. But the Harborplace project was gravely threatened by opposition from Federal Hill and Little Italy neighborhood activists who wanted to protect small businesses and reserve most of the waterfront for parkland.
Worried for the city's future, friends say, Berndt approached Schaefer, devising a campaign to win a referendum battle.