Rawlings holds sway despite cancer battle

Leader: The Baltimore delegate has continued in his prominent political position while receiving chemotherapy to shrink a lung tumor.

January 20, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The desk of Del. Howard P. Rawlings is a one-stop shopping center for nearly every important public policy issue facing Maryland.

In just the past few months, the Baltimore Democrat's rumbling voice has led debate on topics as diverse and divisive as preservation of African-American political influence, creation of a better school-funding formula and legalization of slot machines.

"He's obviously a singular leader," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "He's the House's leader on the budget. He's clearly a senior Baltimore leader and a senior black leader. He wears many hats."

There is one hat, however, that Rawlings would prefer to leave in the closet.

It is the knit cap he dons daily, a web of yarn that covers a skull left bare by treatment of a shrinking but still-dangerous cancer.

On the day before the General Assembly session started this month, Rawlings, 64, sat in a doctor's office and received the final dose of a three-drug regimen to combat a disease that started in his bladder and has spread to his lung.

Hours later, he was back at a familiar spot he has occupied for a decade, shepherding billions of dollars in taxpayer money as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful posts in the legislature.

"A lot of people say I look very good, although looks are deceiving," Rawlings said. "I've been doing well in tolerating chemotherapy."

Rawlings had been reluctant to talk publicly about his health since his latest round of treatment began last summer. But as his 24th legislative session gets under way, he has changed his mind, cognizant of his prominent role in city and state affairs.

"He knows that a lot is depending on him and his leadership," said Joan Scott, an aide since 1992.

She notes that Rawlings has skipped a few social engagements but typically keeps a full schedule that can begin with a 7:30 breakfast meeting and end after 9 p.m. "It helps him because he doesn't sit there and say `I'm in pain,' or whatever. He's just totally positive about the end result."

Rawlings' illness has come at a sensitive juncture for his hometown. As the once-a-decade legislative redistricting process makes clear, Baltimore - one of the fastest-shrinking cities in the nation - is at grave risk of losing its political influence and the resources that go with it.

Acknowledging population shifts, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has proposed relocating two state Senate districts and their accompanying delegates from the Baltimore region to the Washington area. The move means that the state's largest city will be more dependent than ever on a handful of leaders - Rawlings chief among them.

The former college math instructor is working against odds to fulfill his responsibility.

"It reminds you of your mortality, and your friends," he said. "And it also reinforces how grounded I am with regard to my family."

For this article, Rawlings allowed his doctor, Martin J. Edelman of the Greenebaum Cancer Center at the University of Maryland Medical System, to discuss his condition and prognosis.

Rawlings' cancer was first diagnosed in his bladder about three years ago. Localized tumors were removed during five surgeries.

By last July, however, the disease had spread and was in its most advanced form, Edelman said. Rawlings began treatment with a relatively new combination of drugs - taxol, gemcitabine and methotrexate - designed to kill malignant cells while minimizing side effects such as fatigue and nausea.

He has responded remarkably well.

"He had an over 6-centimeter mass in his lung," Edelman said, about the size of a small orange. After two days of chemotherapy treatment every three weeks - "most of which time he spends on the cell phone, talking to people," Edelman said - the growth appears virtually gone. CAT scans reveal only scar tissue, the doctor said.

"I'm optimistic that at least for a period of time, he could go without further treatment," the doctor said. That period, he said, could be a year or more.

As for the prospect of a complete recovery, "I'd say that's probably a 1-in-20 chance here, at best," Edelman said. "The fact is this is a disease that is usually fatal. However, the people who do well, do well. ... I expect he probably will relapse with the disease, and we'll treat that."

No one would blame Rawlings for scaling back commitments as he tries to get better.

He could have begged off the Thornton Commission, the panel that recently completed its two-year review of equity in education. He could have ignored the drafts of legislative redistricting maps that will affect Maryland's political future for at least a decade.

He didn't.

The same day he underwent a treatment session in August, Rawlings strode into Baltimore City Hall to unveil a city legislative map that attempted to keep five African-American state senators. But in a now famous moment, he lashed out at one of his colleagues, Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV.

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