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Top aide is governor's alter ego

THE BALTIMORE SUN

His speed is always set at fast-forward. With a fondness for cybertalk and management jargon, he can be charming or unintelligible. He is disciplined, smart, confident, driven and, above all, fiercely loyal to his boss.

With the protectiveness of a Praetorian Guard and an accountant's fondness for detail, Major F. Riddick Jr. has emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the second floor of the Maryland State House. In the eyes of friends and detractors alike, he runs state government for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

As the governor's chief of staff, the 44-year-old postman's son wields an extraordinary amount of authority, far more than his predecessors. It is an alliance transferred intact from Prince George's County, where Mr. Riddick served as then-County Executive Glendening's chief administrative officer, but it is without precedent in Annapolis.

You are a Cabinet secretary and a crisis looms? You need to check with Mr. Riddick. A legislative issue becoming sticky? Enter Mr. Riddick. He is the administration's information nexus. Little escapes his technocratic attention.

"He and Parris are soul mates," said an administration source. "They both take the long view. They plan where they're going."

For an idea or individual to land in the governor's office, Mr. Riddick or at least one of his aides typically has to be consulted first. That system has rankled some legislators and even members of the fledgling governor's own Cabinet.

Some question how Mr. Glendening can stay in touch when information flows so circuitously from Cabinet secretary to one of Mr. Riddick's four deputies to Mr. Riddick to the governor.

you have a governor who doesn't want to meet with people or get into the nitty-gritty, you run the risk of creating [another] power center," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat. "State government is not Prince George's County. It can't be operated like it's Prince George's County."

One Cabinet official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressed frustration at a system that creates delays.

"You have a policy that requires the governor's support, and you want to take it to the governor and you want to frame it to the governor, but you have to go through an intermediary," the official said. "If the deputy is busy, you have to educate a staffer who will educate the deputy chief of staff who can filter it to Major.

"It's a time-consuming process, and for those of us who are rapid actors, there's a system there that by its definition impedes that rapid response."

Architect and builder

Mr. Riddick and the governor dismiss such criticisms as symptoms of an organization discomfited by change. They liken their relationship to a private company's chief executive officer (Mr. Glendening) and chief administrative officer (Mr. Riddick). The CEO is the architect outlining the plan, while the CAO is the builder, setting the bricks and mortar to fulfill the architect's concept.

"State government is a big business, a $15 billion business, and this is the traditional structure of a large corporation," said Mr. Glendening. "I don't care about insiders' games and how they think it should be organized."

Mr. Riddick, for his part, downplays the significance of his role in determining who or what should have access to the governor. "I'm not a gatekeeper. I'm not a power broker," he insisted.

For many in Annapolis, the word that may best describe Mr. Riddick is enigma. A solid 6 foot 1 inch, 200 pounds and sporting a goatee, he projects an aura of confidence with a -- of rebel. Not well known outside the Cabinet, or even to some insiders for that matter, he is a complex man not easily categorized.

He is the first African-American to be named chief of staff to a Maryland governor, an accomplishment of which he is proud but also wary. The detail is all very well when it demonstrates that the governor is enlightened, not so great when the aide is seen only in the context of his skin color.

" 'Who is this African-American they have in here [taking action for] the governor?'" Mr. Riddick said, projecting the questions of his critics. "There are a number of people who are just not comfortable. I understand that."

Black lawmakers sought his assistance when a bill to increase the amount of state contracts earmarked for minority businesses faltered in the House of Delegates. He helped negotiate a compromise that ultimately raised the goal from 10 percent to 14 percent, yet some black legislators were disappointed with the result.

"Major doesn't wear [his race] on his sleeves," said Sen. Larry Young, a Baltimore Democrat. "Some of my colleagues would want him to wear it on his sleeves."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, another Baltimore Democrat, said Mr. Riddick is a "bona fide role model" in the black community. His mind is like a computer, Mr. Rawlings said, with a "sweeping command of issues and subjects."

High profile

"He is probably the most high-profile chief of staff a governor has ever had," Mr. Rawlings said.

But Mr. Riddick has also been at the center of the most serious setback of Mr. Glendening's gubernatorial career. More than anything else, the furor that erupted over the unusually generous pension and other benefits the governor, Mr. Riddick and two top aides earned in Prince George's County has shaped the public's negative image of the Glendening State House.

Thrust into the limelight, Mr. Riddick did not fare well. He ultimately gave back some of the $184,000 he received from the county for unused leave, and the legislature passed a bill forcing him to wait 11 years to collect pension benefits. He watched as two Cabinet nominees got raked over the coals and his boss was pilloried for a benefits program Mr. Riddick helped engineer.

The governor's critics seized on Mr. Riddick's defense of the program, and his insistence that he deserved the money, as a sign of an arrogant administration out of touch with taxpayers.

If the matter could be done over, Mr. Riddick says he would have told the pension trustees to seek County Council approval of the program.

"I'd have made sure everything went through in public," said Mr. Riddick who still defends the merits of the program. "Then the story would have been to beat up on that council and not the governor."

Only his family and his strong faith in his church got him through what he now recalls as the toughest time of his life, Mr. Riddick said. Yet he never considered quitting, an act tantamount to "running from adversity."

"I had never really struggled in my life. Maybe the Lord decided I needed a test," he said.

Born in Norfolk and raised in nearby Chesapeake, Va., Mr. Riddick was brought up in a household where education and achievement were prized. Math and science came easily to him, as did finance -- his professional career began with a five-mile paper route at the age of 13.

He entered Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1968, one of only 38 blacks on a campus of 12,000 underclassmen.

In an era of nationwide civil unrest, Mr. Riddick soon evolved from a disenchanted ROTC candidate to campus political activist -- as much as a black student could be at a rural college where the Confederate flag flew over the stadium and Dixie was played before athletic events.

"Activism was a little subtle" at the school, he recalled. "We were into debating and analyzing."

Graduating with a master's degree in urban and public administration in 1973, Mr. Riddick spent three years teaching at Norfolk State University, then worked for Pennsylvania's welfare department before going to Prince George's in 1978.

He rose quickly up the civil service ranks within the county's budget office, impressing then-Councilman Glendening. When Mr. Glendening became county executive in 1983, he chose Mr. Riddick to run the county's housing program. Three years later, Mr. Riddick was running the county budget office. By 1990, he was managing the day-to-day operations of county government.

"We came up through the ranks together," Mr. Glendening said. "When I saw past the fact he talked real fast and moved the numbers pretty rapidly, I saw very quickly how capable he was."

In Prince George's County, Mr. Riddick's work ethic is legendary. He rises each day at 5 a.m. to exercise in the basement gymnasium at his spacious home in Fort Washington, where he lives with his wife, Manervia, an executive with Washington Gas Light Co., and their 14-year-old daughter, Myrica.

His work days are usually 12 hours long, but he also sets aside time to be a mentor for low-achieving fifth- and sixth-grade boys at Potomac Landing Elementary near his home. Active in Ebenezer AME Church, he is credited with putting together a financial plan that allowed the growing congregation to move into a $15 million, 3,000-seat church building in Fort Washington last year.

"Don't tell me about enough time," he recently lectured a group of state employees. "I don't get a lot of sleep . . . but again, I'm strange."

Fond of computers and the information superhighway, Mr. Riddick keeps a cigarette-case-sized electronic organizer in his pocket and an upgraded-with-all-the-goodies personal computer by his desk.

To the uninitiated, his management-speak often requires translation. "Let's migrate everyone to the new process," as he recently told his senior staff, means that he hopes everyone will learn to use a new computer system.

'I've been challenged'

In Annapolis, Mr. Riddick has not achieved the kind of popularity within the halls of government that he enjoyed in Prince George's. His political stumbles and State House inexperience have irritated some legislators. Last month, he was a key figure in the administration's push to use $1.5 million in state funds to bail out a financially troubled engineering business owned by Wallace O. Stephens, a longtime Glendening supporter.

"Sometimes he's not sensitive to political pitfalls," said Delegate Rawlings, who wishes Mr. Riddick had talked to legislators outside Prince George's before the administration pursued the bailout. "Hell, I'm chairman of the appropriations committee, and I didn't know about it until I read about it in the paper."

But others say they believe much of the criticism of the chief of staff is really targeted at the governor. One reason Mr. Glendening trusts him so absolutely, longtime associates point out, is because Mr. Riddick has no policy agenda of his own; his actions are always in concert with the governor's.

Nevertheless, "Major has got to take the responsibility as chief of staff to see that these situations don't keep recurring," said Lance Billingsley, a Prince George's attorney and longtime Glendening ally.

Mr. Riddick will admit to some missteps and recognizes that the pension and Stephens affairs have created a heightened concern over the administration's ethics. But he also wants it known to his critics that neither he nor the governor's management system are leaving town anytime soon.

"I'm not going anywhere. I've been challenged," Mr. Riddick said. "People still have the jury out as to whether this administration is going to move. I think I can make a significant contribution."

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