In his own quiet way, East Baltimore's state senator, Perry Sfikas, is making a name for himself in Annapolis: "the Prince of Pork."
Sfikas, a second-term Democrat, doesn't get a lot of publicity outside his 46th Legislative District. He rarely speaks on the Senate floor. He doesn't head any legislative committees. He's not the resident expert on any statewide issue.
But in Patterson Park this summer, the fruits of his political labors will be on display.
The Southeast Baltimore park is the site of three large development projects financed with state money that Sfikas helped secure. In the surrounding neighborhood, scores of homes are being renovated with state aid he helped bring home.
As much as any Maryland senator, Sfikas has made it his mission to bring redevelopment projects to his district. The 45-year-old former city councilman and congressional aide has used his knowledge of state and federal programs to help spark a mini-boom in neighborhoods once on the brink of decline. "It's just knowing where there are pots of money," he says.
One way to get money is by introducing a bond bill and winning the approval of Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chairman of the powerful capital budget subcommittee. It's Middleton who has dubbed Sfikas "the Prince of Pork."
"He is probably the most aggressive senator when it comes to a bond bill," the Charles County Democrat says. "He will do whatever he thinks is necessary to get a bill passed."
Sfikas says one key to success is not asking for too much. "Piglets go on to play another day," he says. "Hogs get slaughtered."
Across Little Italy, Fells Point, Canton, Highlandtown, Hamilton and his home neighborhood of Greektown, Sfikas has left his mark on one of Maryland's most ethnically diverse districts.
His gift for bringing in money has tightened his grip on the reliably Democratic district to the point where opposition is undetectable. One of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's favorite senators, Sfikas has little to worry about in redistricting.
"He has a firewall around East Baltimore," says U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who represents much of the area. "No one's going to touch him politically."
One reason is the near-obsessive attention he lavishes on the district's many community and ethnic groups. He says he's either at events or working at his immigration law practice every night except Sundays. When the Assembly is not in session, he estimates he spends 75 percent of his working time on Senate matters.
Unmarried, Sfikas lives with his parents in a three-bedroom Greektown rowhouse, where he helps care for his ailing father. Other senators say they know little or nothing about his life outside the legislature. "His Senate seat is his life," says Carolyn J. Krysiak, one of the three Democratic delegates from the 46th.
Sfikas has solidified his position while compiling a socially liberal, racially conciliatory record that once might have been politically hazardous in the white ethnic bastion of Southeast Baltimore. He cast a critical vote for passage of Glendening's gay rights bill, and he has consistently voted for bills important to his African-American colleagues.
Sfikas says his 14 years as a caseworker for U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, during which he handled many human rights complaints, left him with an aversion to discrimination in any form. "Part of what you do in public office is help educate and teach people not to be fearful," he says.
Cardin credits Sfikas with changing the political tone in the 46th. "That district is a lot more progressive today because of Perry's leadership," Cardin says.
One of the few who openly criticize Sfikas is Daniel Clements, chairman of the Maryland State Trial Lawyers Association political action committee. The trial lawyers felt betrayed this year when Sfikas co-sponsored, then voted against, their bill to make it easier to sue in personal injury cases.
"He doesn't take tough stands, and he supports silly legislation like educating the public on the Irish potato famine," Clements says. "I don't think anyone would describe him as a leader in the state Senate."
But Clements says he sees no political weakness because "he's home every night campaigning, even during the legislative session."
Sfikas is a different breed of politician for an area that produced such legendary characters as the late Councilman Mimi DiPietro, famed for his mangled English. DiPietro lost his last election in 1991 to a ticket led by Sfikas. Besides a law degree, Sfikas holds a master's degree in science, technology and public policy from George Washington University.
He says his goal is to help the 46th "make the transition from a post-industrial economy into the economy that's evolving." DiPietro never talked that way.
Mikulski says Sfikas "treats that state Senate seat as if he were the executive director of a community development corporation." That approach could be seen in his handling of the reclamation of the blighted Esskay factory in North Highlandtown.