A rumbling voice of conscience in General Assembly

Baltimore delegate was tireless advocate for social, fiscal responsibility

Wielded great political power

Howard P. Rawlings : 1937-2003

November 15, 2003|By Sarah Koenig and David Nitkin | Sarah Koenig and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Howard Peters "Pete" Rawlings, a child of Baltimore public housing who rose to become one of the most powerful political leaders in Maryland, died yesterday at the University of Maryland Medical Center. He was 66 and had been battling cancer since 1999.

Mr. Rawlings spent a quarter-century representing the city in the General Assembly. With the mind of a trained mathematician and the fearlessness of a man certain of his convictions, he used his position as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee to bring change to his hometown and the state. Almost always, he bested adversaries who dared stand in his way.

He advocated affordable housing, orchestrated the restructuring of the city school system and doggedly pushed for legalizing slot machines as a way to pay for public education.

Along the way, his blessing became a valued commodity for aspiring politicians, turning him into something of a kingmaker in an era when machine politics was on the wane.

In 1999, he surprised many by withdrawing his backing from an African-American candidate and instead endorsing Martin O'Malley for mayor - a move that immeasurably bolstered the then-councilman's chances. In 2002, Mr. Rawlings guided Lisa A. Gladden's successful run for the state Senate against incumbent Barbara A. Hoffman, a longtime colleague.

Despite many surgeries and treatments for his illness, which spread from his bladder to other parts of his body, Mr. Rawlings remained a vital player in Annapolis until his death. Although he missed a key budget debate this year, his position as chairman placed him at the center of the session's vexing financial issues.

"I think he'll go down as one of the most significant legislative leaders of his era," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "His influence on issues of education and higher education are probably unparalleled in this state."

A tearful Mr. O'Malley, surrounded by members of the City Council and Baltimore's legislative delegation, said the city had lost a devoted public servant.

"This is a very sad day for the people of Baltimore," he said. "Baltimore has lost a great giant of a man, and I have lost a close personal friend."

Funeral arrangements were incomplete last night.

A math professor, Mr. Rawlings ended his academic career as assistant to the president of Baltimore City Community College. Even before he entered politics, he was an activist for civil rights, higher education and services for the poor.

Soon after his election to the House of Delegates in 1978, he became known as one of the few people in the 188-member General Assembly who actually understood the nuances of Maryland's finances. In 1992, he was named Appropriations Committee chairman, giving him substantial influence on the budget and, therefore, on state policy.

Power of purse strings

Mr. Rawlings could, and did, direct money to projects in Baltimore important to him and to his constituents. And he was known to unabashedly withhold funds from pet projects of legislators set on blocking bills he favored.

A prime example was a painful debate in 1997 over the reorganization of the city's public schools. "If this bill goes down, all their school construction money is coming out of the budget," he said of his opponents. "They won't get anything. Not a dime."

Perhaps more than any other issue, the city schools reform debate solidified his reputation as a leader willing to stand resolutely in the face of criticism. Lawmakers, black clergy and the national NAACP criticized the plan to relinquish some of the city's control of the schools in exchange for an increase in state aid. But Mr. Rawlings pushed the measure through.

"A politician worries about the next election. A true statesman worries about the next generation, and children yet unborn, and that was Pete Rawlings," said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "It takes a lot of guts to disregard the criticism that goes along with doing what is right."

Blunt rhetoric

A tall man of large girth, Mr. Rawlings made good use of his presence. He spoke slowly, his voice a rumble that emanated from deep within. The effect was such that when he rose on the House floor, everyone knew he meant business. Even as his body was weakening, his blunt rhetoric never did.

"We have failed, ladies and gentlemen, we have failed at the most important task before us," he said in March, presenting the budget. "That is the task of putting our fiscal house in order and putting the state on a course to structural budget balance. ... We are leaving a hell of a lot undone."

He once said of then-City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, "He's a child. He behaves like a child. He thinks like a child."

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