Leadership of `powerful chairman' deserves support

January 06, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

YOU'LL WANT to clip this column: It's a newspaperman's fund-raising appeal on behalf of a politician.

It's man bites dog, a reversal of form. Having spent many years bemoaning the evils of money in politics, I say now unlimber your checkbooks for Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings of Baltimore.

Since political fundraising is illegal during a General Assembly session, and since this is an election year, many officials are holding events right now: The 2002 session begins Wednesday. Mr. Rawlings convenes his backers tomorrow at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m.

My friends at Common Cause will be spilling their morning coffee as they read this. But I know they'll hear me out.

In the newspaper, after a reference to the man from West Baltimore, we almost always add "chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee." It's a totally accurate and pitifully inadequate description. Pete Rawlings is more than powerful.

We could write, for example, "a politician who's willing to say no."

In the mid-1990s, he held back $5.9 million in state school aid headed for Baltimore because the city's schools had failed to meet performance standards.

That action did not please all his constituents, though many understood his objectives: compliance, change and improvement. To that same end, he inflamed the Maryland State Teachers Association by flirting with the idea of vouchers that might have been used in private and parochial schools. He thought the public education system needed a jolt of competition.

Of course, we might write, as his critics have said, "heavy-handed chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee" (see above). Or "Maryland's last, best hope for accountability in a one-party state" (see above and below).

In 1996, with the federal courts insisting on change, Chairman Rawlings helped to engineer a state takeover of the Baltimore system. Proud Baltimoreans were angry. In return for his politically difficult stand, he got $254 million over five years.

Mr. Rawlings has dared to do these things because he is the powerful chairman who cares. He's proposed legalizing slot machines at racetracks, pitting himself against ministers and others in his community who oppose more gambling. He'll persist this year because education needs the money.

Over the years, we might have alluded to his work on housing issues. That labor led him once to reflect ruefully on the fates. While he spent a weekend sweating the details of a bill to provide more low-cost rental housing, the Baltimore Afro-American ran a banner headline about another legislator who was in a post office parking lot when a man was shot. "He died in my arms," she said in inch-tall letters followed by her name. Mr. Rawlings' work got no notice.

Since those days of obscurity, he's become a powerful chairman, and his name has been in the newspaper often. A mathematician by academic training, he has the good politician's talent for the incisive quote. He's an understated, wry observer - another possible way to describe him.

He's recently been clever enough to showcase a disagreement with his party's incumbent governor, Parris N. Glendening, who seemed anxious to become the $345,000-a-year chancellor of Maryland's higher education system. Mr. Rawlings adroitly proclaimed his view of that idea. He and another legislator made a list of Marylanders they thought qualified. "Regrettably," Mr. Rawlings told a reporter, "Governor Glendening wasn't on the list." This jab came even as the governor completed his redistricting map - potentially putting the chairman in a less friendly district. Of course, Mr. Rawlings may have been pressured to endorse Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's race for governor in exchange for a safer district.

Power always needs balance. Mr. Rawlings, who is black, wants to protect other African-American office holders during the redistricting process. At the same time, he is not a fan of state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, grandson of the late civil rights leader Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. of Baltimore. For opposing a racial profiling bill and for other reasons, Mr. Rawlings referred to Senator Mitchell as "despicable."

At the end of the day, the chairman's words matter even more in a city that is losing population and legislative influence. But remember this: powerful or not, truth-telling does not always please one's constituents. It's one of those perversities of democracy.

So think of all this as a heads up, a timely public notice of an opportunity. It springs from a belief that leadership is an awesome thing, something to be talked about, treasured and supported.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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