Executives are pressing Melissaratos on O'Malley

December 06, 2006|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Columnist

Two days ago, in First Mariner Bank's gorgeous boardroom overlooking the harbor, business leader after business leader urged Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley to reappoint Aris Melissaratos as economic development secretary.

O'Malley wasn't there, but Ralph Tyler, head of O'Malley's transition team, was, according to participants. The meeting was officially about opening communication between companies and the next governor, but people kept talking about Melissaratos.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said yesterday that, while Melissaratos will be considered with other potential candidates, "it's unlikely that Secretary Melissaratos will be reappointed."

So much for seamless transitions. By resisting strong pressure to join the Melissaratos lovefest, O'Malley risks alienating business leadership before he takes office. That would be even quicker than Parris N. Glendening, the last Democratic governor.

"I think Aris Melissaratos is the best marketing manager the state has had in recent memory," says Kathleen Snyder, CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. Her board hasn't formally weighed in, she said, but "that would be my personal endorsement, yes."

At Monday's meeting with Baltimore City Solicitor Tyler, she said, "a number of people, unsolicited from anybody in that room, talked about the value of Aris continuing as secretary" of the Department of Business and Economic Development.

People such as Ed Hale, an O'Malley backer, chief of First Mariner and founder of the Maryland Business Council, which helped put the confab of about a dozen business leaders together.

Reappointing Melissaratos "was not part of the agenda, and it did come up several times, from several different constituencies" on Monday, Hale said. He says he has told O'Malley privately that "he'd be hard-pressed to find somebody better" for economic development head.

Melissaratos even gets compliments from manufacturing and retailing, sectors that often feel left out of the state economic agency's gaze.

"He's the first DBED secretary who even knew retail existed," says Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association and an attendee Monday.

Melissaratos helped lure the Wegmans supermarket to Baltimore County and sends the state agency's representatives to promote Maryland at the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas, Saquella said.

"We think DBED Secretary Melissaratos has been a great business leader for Maryland, and there's no need to change that," says Mike Galiazzo, executive director of the Regional Manufacturing Institute and another participant in Monday's meeting.

The state's strategy of promoting information technology and laboratories is producing spinoff benefits for factories, Galiazzo said, adding that Melissaratos is a "visionary."

Such smooches may be the kiss of death. Newly empowered politicians hate being told what to do. And they really hate being ordered to keep officers from a previous, rival regime.

A former executive with Westinghouse's radar unit in Linthicum (now owned by Northrop Grumman), Melissaratos is a Democrat. But he has worked for the Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for four years and may be too closely associated with him to be viewed as a compadre by the governor-elect.

The revelation in The Sun on Saturday that the state agency awarded a contract of up to $500,000 to a social acquaintance of Melissaratos does not enhance his chances of being reappointed, nor should it.

But if not Melissaratos, who? "We are still early in the transition phase," says Abbruzzese. (Tyler didn't return my call.)

The Greater Baltimore Committee's Don Fry is a long shot; he would have to take a pay cut, and he's more likely to be interested in being transportation secretary, anyway. I would be surprised if Mike Lewin, Glendening's former economic development chief, did a second tour. David Edgerly, Montgomery County's economic development head, looks like a better bet.

But whoever takes the job will probably have fences to mend with the business groups.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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