J.P. Grant III

Baltimore businessman J.P. Grant discusses the 2012 Grand Prix of Baltimore during a news conference. (Monica Lopossay, BALTIMORE SUN / May 16, 2012)

Despite financing more than $140 million city contracts in the past 12 years, donating tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and being a member of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's inner circle, J.P. Grant III has largely avoided the limelight.

Then this week Grant, a West Baltimore native, stepped into the public glare as one of the latest saviors of the troubled Baltimore Grand Prix.

City leaders, of course, already knew him. When he walked into a meeting of Baltimore's spending board this week, they greeted him warmly. From his seat at the board's dais, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young flashed a broad grin at the financier. Comptroller Joan Pratt, who had voted against a previous contract for control of the Baltimore Grand Prix, announced she would support the current contract because of Grant's involvement.

"I'm not used to this," Grant said of the publicity surrounding the high-profile Grand Prix contract. "My natural inclination is to help the city, just as we have done for over 30 years."

Wearing a crisp white shirt emblazoned with the Grand Prix's new logo — a clipper ship floating on a blue checkered flag — Grant said he and a business partner, construction contractor Greg O'Neill, would fund the race, while leaving the day-to-day operations to racing superstar Michael Andretti's sports marketing company.

Grant arrived at this moment after growing up in Baltimore, attending Harvard University but not graduating, and working for IBM Corp. in sales before starting his own company to help governments finance capital expenditures. Along the way, he became a major backer of Democratic candidates, including Rawlings-Blake, and developed a close working relationship with her younger brother, Wendell Rawlings, a subcontractor on two of Grant's projects outside the city.

But when his role funding the Grand Prix race preparations brought him in front of TV cameras and other media this week, Grant directed attention elsewhere. "This is really about the Andrettis," he said. "If you need something financed, call me."

Grant says his Columbia based-company, Grant Capital Management, has financed as much as $1.2 billion in deals over the past two years. His clients include several state agencies, Prince George's and Howard counties, Baltimore City, the city housing authority and the city school system — and that's just in Maryland. He has financed more than 150 contracts totaling more than $4 billion nationwide over 15 years, according to his company's website.

"Most governments, not just Baltimore, don't have a large capital budget," Grant says. "Yet, they have requirements: They have to have garbage trucks, police cars, fire trucks, things essential to running the city. To come up with $10 million, $20 million at a clip eats up your budget pretty quickly."

Grant says he first became aware of this market — referred to as capital leases — when working for IBM.

"We were selling computers to city and state governments, but they needed financing. I said, 'This might be a good idea.' And so, 20 years later, I'm an overnight success," Grant said with a wry smile.

While Grant maintains a low profile outside government circles, local politicians — and their fundraisers — know him well.

He has contributed more than $160,000 to the state Democratic Central Committee over the past decade. All three of the city's top officials have been the beneficiaries of his largesse: Grant, his relatives and employees have given $37,000 to Rawlings-Blake, $15,000 to Pratt and $4,000 to Young in recent years. Grant, his family and associates have also donated to Gov. Martin O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Those who grew up with Grant, the son of a physician and a school administrator, said he was marked for success at a young age.

Wayne Frazier, president of the Maryland Washington Minority Contractors Association, said he attended what was then called Roland Park Junior High School with Grant in the 1960s.

"J.P. was the leader of the pack," said Frazier. "Everyone followed behind J.P. back then. He was one of the brightest guys in the school as well."

Pratt, the city's comptroller, said she has known Grant since they were both in high school, and she spoke glowingly of Grant and his "long record of community involvement."

"I've known him from teenage years," said Pratt. "I knew him as a friend for years."

Grant graduated from City College. He said he left Baltimore to attend Harvard University for four years but that he did not graduate.