Gov. Martin O'Malley picked an Annapolis veteran Thursday to oversee the waning years of his administration, appointing as chief of staff a man who has worked under four governors and earned respect in the environmental community for his candor.
Department of Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin will take over for the final 18 months of O'Malley's administration, as the governor decides whether to set his sights on the White House and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown launches a campaign to succeed O'Malley. Griffin will replace departing chief of staff Matthew Gallagher by June.
"I just hope I'm up to the challenge," said Griffin, 66.
Gallagher is the third of O'Malley's close advisers to leave state government in recent months. Griffin said he expects the trend to continue as attention shifts to who will occupy the governor's mansion when O'Malley departs.
Since joining state government in 1979 under Gov. Harry Hughes, Griffin has watched the final years of three other Democratic administrations. He described himself as "a long-in-the-tooth state bureaucrat" and said he was humbled to be asked to be chief of staff.
O'Malley described Griffin as "the heart and soul of Maryland's environmental agenda" in a release announcing the appointment.
Griffin joined the Department of Natural Resources in 1984 as a deputy secretary. He served as secretary from 1995 to 1999 under Gov. Parris N. Glendening and took over the role a second time in 2007 in the O'Malley administration.
Glendening, who fired Griffin over policy differences, complimented O'Malley for choosing Griffin, who he said would provide "stability in the final two years of the administration, a time in which things have a tendency to want to fall apart."
"He's got a very calm demeanor, but at the same time, he's tough," Glendening said. "A lot people would have been a good soldier, so to speak, and would have just gone along with what I wanted to do. But he disagreed, and that's why we ended up where we ended up."
When Griffin returned to the DNR in 2007, he shied away from the hulking vehicles driven by previous executives and opted instead for a Honda Civic hybrid.
State Sen. John Astle, an Annapolis Democrat who works frequently with Griffin on behalf of hunters, called him "a solid guy who's willing to sit down and listen when you want to talk to him about an issue. He doesn't get squirrelly and get rash and make a decision without all the information."
Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called him "an honest broker."
"He's a person who puts on no airs," said Baker, who said he has known Griffin since the Hughes administration. "He can bring people together in a way that I have seen only rarely."
Griffin, who will be 67 by the time he takes over as chief of staff, lives in Annapolis with his wife and their two teenage sons.
Gallagher will step down in May as O'Malley's chief of staff to head the nonprofit Goldseker Foundation in Baltimore.
The governor's top legislative officer, Joseph C. Bryce, and head of public affairs, Rick Abbruzzese, left the administration in late 2012 for lobbying jobs.
An earlier version of this story misstated when Griffin served as secretary under Glendening. The Sun regrets the error.