Ehrlich appoints aide to oversee budget agency

But Senate leader says he has reservations about DiPaula's qualifications

January 09, 2003|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has tapped his campaign manager to become Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, one of the most crucial posts in government as the state tries to claw its way out of a $1.8 billion budget shortfall.

James "Chip" DiPaula, Jr., 40, was considered a hawk-eyed overseer of Ehrlich's campaign funds, refusing to spend money on anything that wasn't "mission-oriented" -- absolutely crucial.

"Chip DiPaula is one of the best and most intuitive managers I have ever met," Ehrlich said in a statement yesterday announcing the appointment. "Chip is clearly the best person I know for this critical post."

But not everyone is convinced of DiPaula's qualifications, most notably Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, whose chamber must confirm Cabinet nominations.

Miller said he has reservations about DiPaula's lack of experience handling state-sized budgets and his partisan background.

Before joining Ehrlich's campaign, DiPaula was chief executive officer of the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, a $100 million event.

Before that, he worked for 10 years at MacKenzie and Associates, a Baltimore-based real estate development firm, where he helped launch a $34 million retirement community in Baltimore County.

"I have significant private-sector experience," said DiPaula. "I've been working with budgets and balancing budgets for 20 years."

Besides managing the budget process, DiPaula would also be responsible for a top-to-bottom review of the government to root out inefficiencies and duplications, and to make sure agencies are doing what they're supposed to, he said.

Miller said he is primarily concerned about DiPaula's level of experience. "We've had a history of budget experts holding that position," he said.

Additionally, he questioned whether DiPaula would have "credibility" with House and Senate members, and whether his political background would make lawmakers wary of trusting DiPaula not to use "the intimacy of their conversations" to later campaign against them.

But Miller said he would not block DiPaula's confirmation. "We're going to have open hearings and discussions," he said. "We'll see what develops."

Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Ulysses Currie withheld judgment. "I've met him and he seemed nice enough, but I don't know his skills or knowledge," he said. "My concern is we are in a tough time fiscally. ... We need a budget secretary whose knowledge and skill is second to none."

In the House of Delegates, DiPaula's nomination appeared to go over a bit better. House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he respected Ehrlich's prerogative to choose those who will best represent his agenda.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings approved, saying that in budget meetings, it appeared DiPaula could handle the job.

"He seems to have a very good grasp of the budget," he said. "He seems to bring the right talent to carry out the governor-elect's fiscal agenda."

Former state Sen. Marten G. Madden, who has worked with DiPaula on Ehrlich's transition team, said the public will likely gain an appreciation for DiPaula when the governor's budget is unveiled next week. "When they realize he is a key architect of this daunting task, they'll understand more about the caliber of the person he is," Madden said.

Ehrlich also announced yesterday that Nick Schloeder, his former Gilman School football coach, U.S. history teacher and a staunch Democrat, was joining his administration as a member of the legislative team.

Schloeder was a major influence on Ehrlich's life, recruiting him for the private school after seeing Ehrlich play football in an Arbutus pickup game.

Schloeder describes himself as an "unreconstructed Franklin Roosevelt Democrat" who worked for U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes for 18 years, helped run campaigns for U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and helped make policy for former Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Because of Ehrlich's conservative politics, Schloeder has joked that the new governor is his "biggest failure and disappointment."

Schloeder said he did not hesitate to say "yes" when Ehrlich asked him to join his administration.

Asked if it was strange to suddenly be subordinate to a former student, Schloeder said "no." "One of the things about being a teacher is that you want your students to be better than you are," he said.

Sun staff writers Ivan Penn and Tim Craig contributed to this article.

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