New to Annapolis, not power

Staff: The governor's top three aides are old hands at Washington politics, but Maryland's may pose a different sort of challenge.

February 11, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The freshly installed burgundy carpet that blankets the second floor of the Maryland State House smells like victory. And power.

Leaving footprints there every day is a team of behind-the-scenes players new to Annapolis but not to government life.

The most coveted offices in town - those closest to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and thus nearest the epicenter of political power in Maryland - now belong to Steven L. Kreseski, the straight-backed, even-tempered chief of staff to the governor, and two deputy chiefs, Mary Beth Carozza and Edward McDonald.

If they do their jobs well, they will never become household names.

But within the insular world of the state capital, everyone will soon learn who they are: the loyal aides with tremendous access to the governor's ear. They're the outsiders from Washington who now have the machinery of an 80,000-person bureaucracy at their fingertips.

For decades, these positions have been held by loyal Democrats who, after having reached the pinnacle of second-floor employment, have never gone jobless again. Now it is the Republicans' turn, and a profile seems to be emerging of the type of person Ehrlich wants around.

Similarities abound among the three members of the new Republican power squad. All three were born in Baltimore, rising from working-class backgrounds to the corridors of power on Capitol Hill.

Each is a former congressional chief of staff; all three are Catholic, unwed, willing to work 15-hour-plus days and totally devoted to their boss.

"You have incredible talent here," Ehrlich says. "Some of the models we've seen on Capitol Hill, we're bringing here."

Yet the going may not be easy. Annapolis is a smaller field than Washington and presumably easier to navigate. But there are relationships to build, egos to assuage. And there is an entire government to run - not just a congressional office.

"The prevailing wisdom is that some of the Washington folks aren't going to last long," says Michael Golden, a spokesman for Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. "They don't know state politics. They're applying Washington principles to Annapolis, and they are two different animals."

`The constant'

Kreseski, 46, said his boss never formally offered him the chief of staff position. And he never really accepted.

The day after the election, Ehrlich made an impromptu announcement during a news conference at a downtown hotel: Kreseski did a double take when he heard his name called out.

"He was walking in the back of the room," the governor says. "When you announce people, it takes away their opportunity to say no."

Of course, it was no surprise. Kreseski held the same title in Ehrlich's congressional office and has been by his side for nine years, a trusted adviser, a close friend.

Born in the city's Hamilton neighborhood, Kreseski's early days mirror those of his boss. His athletic talent earned him a scholarship to the McDonogh School, though he wasn't good enough to line up on a football field against Ehrlich, who was at Gilman at the same time.

"I never played against Bob," Kreseski says. "He played varsity. He was much better."

Kreseski attended Gettysburg College and received a degree from the University of Baltimore Law School.

His work as a clerk for Baltimore Circuit Court Judge J. Harold Grady provided an opening to the world of Maryland politics. A former Baltimore mayor, Grady had been a product of the political machine of Irv Kovens and was a law school classmate of former Gov. Marvin Mandel's. He knew how things worked.

In 1984, Kreseski went to Annapolis for a formative four-month stint as a legislative bill drafter, a low-level position that exposed him to leading players and issues.

Kreseski spent the next seven years as a trial lawyer, working for Joseph A. Schwartz III, an Annapolis lobbyist who represents clients such as Eli Lilly and Co., the state medical society and Waste Management Inc.

Apart from a taste for beer, Kreseski has few vices, Schwartz said. He puts in extremely long hours - one day last week he left his desk after 1 a.m. for his Washington apartment and was back before 8:30 a.m. - and treats his colleagues well.

"He doesn't have the seamy underside that some people might like to read about," Schwartz says. "He's honorable. He's honest. He's very hard working, and he's very kind. He loves public policy more than he ever loved the law."

Ehrlich and Kreseski met about 1990 as members of the Exchange Club of Towson, a service group. Ehrlich was a state delegate, and Kreseski would soon become a Washington lobbyist for pharmaceutical and consumer-products firms.

Kreseski's industry connections helped Ehrlich as he was gathering cash for his first congressional bid in 1994. "I got him his first PAC check, and I was part of his kitchen Cabinet," Kreseski said. Since then, he said, he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Ehrlich, although he has never taken a formal role in his campaigns.

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