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Governor's ally heads board of regents As a close friend, Billingsley has unusual access

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Within Gov. Parris N. Glendening's inner circle of advisers, Lance W. Billingsley has always held a special place.

Not only is he the governor's family attorney and one of his closest friends, he is the man who introduced the College Park professor to real-world politics. He taught him who you had to know, what you needed to know and how to win.

In return, Mr. Billingsley has enjoyed access to Mr. Glendening with a capital A. When Mr. Glendening was Prince George's County executive, that connection generated power and money for Mr. Billingsley and his highly successful law practice -- to an extent that some of the administration's critics found unseemly.

Nevertheless, when Mr. Glendening was elected governor, Mr. Billingsley could have had his pick of jobs in the administration. Only one interested him, and it wasn't in Annapolis, in the Cabinet or even as a lobbyist.

Enter the newest chairman of the University of Maryland System's board of regents, the 17-member committee that governs College Park, 10 other campuses and two research institutes.

Mr. Glendening, the longtime academician who until recently earned his living as a University of Maryland professor explaining political theory to underclassmen, recognized the irony of the appointment.

"He was the one who was the political technician involved in the real world of politics," the governor said. "It's funny now that I'm in politics and we're asking him to go into education."

He 'wasn't college material'

But for those who know Mr. Billingsley, the job makes perfect sense. It was in College Park that a teen-ager who used to cut classes, whose father left when he was 6, and who fought in a street gang in his native Buffalo, N.Y., discovered the joys of ambition and politics.

"He was counseled in high school that he wasn't college material and should probably join the Army," said his wife, Carolyn, who met him when both were juniors at Maryland. "Going to the University of Maryland was a turning point in his life. He saw opportunities that he hadn't imagined before."

Still lean and active at 55, Mr. Billingsley could easily pass for 40. He swims three days a week, lifts weights two, bikes up to 50 miles three or four. He sports the tan and thick dark hair of a Kennedy, writes with a $150 Mont Blanc pen and dresses impeccably.

Mr. Billingsley doesn't ski, he competes downhill. He doesn't drive a car, he takes racing lessons. As a senior at Maryland, he decided to try out for varsity soccer -- and made it on a team that went to the national championship.

"I'm a competitive person," said Mr. Billingsley, a College Park resident and father of three grown children. "College wasn't high school. It was a challenge. It was exciting."

Mr. Billingsley met Mr. Glendening when both were in the Prince George's Jaycees more than a quarter-century ago. Mr. Glendening was a College Park professor with an interest in public service. Mr. Billingsley was already well-connected to the county's Democratic machine run by Peter F. O'Malley and Steny H. Hoyer.

He knew Mr. Hoyer from their days together in student government at Maryland. They were reunited in the Young Democrats, a group of baby boomers unwilling to wait until middle age to have a say in party affairs. Another former classmate -- Mr. Billingsley's fraternity "little brother" -- was Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., now president of the state Senate.

"There was a strong movement for young people to be involved," recalled Mr. Billingsley, who received a bachelor's degree in economics from Maryland in 1961. "We were banding together. We were getting a say in the political process much earlier than generations before had."

In 1970, after a falling-out with the O'Malley-Hoyer organization, Mr. Billingsley recruited Mr. Glendening to run with him for the county's Democratic Central Committee. Mr. Glendening lost. Mr. Billingsley won.

After six years as committee chairman, Mr. Billingsley bowed out of politics in 1980. It proved to be a short vacation. Mr. Glendening, having served on the Hyattsville City Council and Prince George's County Council, wanted to run for county executive. He asked Mr. Billingsley to manage his campaign.

It struck Mr. Billingsley as a quixotic endeavor. Popular Republican Lawrence J. Hogan looked like a shoo-in for re-election. But when Mr. Hogan decided to run for the U.S. Senate instead, Mr. Glendening was well-positioned for victory.

"Fate smiled on us," Mr. Billingsley said. "There were other, more established candidates, more logical choices than Parris. But we had taken the field early [before Mr. Hogan left the race] and it was difficult for anyone to take it away from us."

Fortune also had a big grin for Mr. Billingsley. Shortly after Mr. Glendening took office, his administration steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal work to Mr. Billingsley's firm to oversee bond issues.

At Mr. Billingsley's urging, the county executive also created a quasi-public Economic Development Corp. to attract new employers and installed his friend as chairman. That disturbed some lawyers in the county who felt the position gave Mr. Billingsley an unfair opportunity to develop new clients.

Making no apologies

Mr. Billingsley was unapologetic about either move. Yes, he said, his relationship with the county executive "was a source of revenue."

But, he added, attracting new clients was justified as compensation for the unpaid EDC post. His no-bid contract as bond co-counsel -- sharing duties with a Baltimore firm -- was appropriate because such contracts previously went only to lawyers in New York or Baltimore with no connection to the

county, he said.

"Just as you have affirmative action programs to correct the lack of social policy in the past, I think there should be some recognition of the law firms that were contributing to this county in many ways," Mr. Billingsley said.

That connection between politics and commerce has been a constant in Mr. Billingsley's career. In the 1980s, his law firm was widely perceived as the place to go if you wanted to get an audience with the county executive.

"This cozy kind of 'one hand washes the other' has been a hallmark of their relationship," said a prominent Prince George's lawyer who asked not to be identified. "It's caused Parris some problems. We don't have a pristine reputation for politics in Prince George's County, and this contributes to that."

Judy Robinson, a Prince George's civic activist and frequent Glendening critic, said: "If Mr. Billingsley's law firm had gotten one more county contract, they'd have slid off into the Anacostia River. Ethically, morally, you don't run a person's campaign and then get every contract going."

Mr. Billingsley said he could have gotten far richer if he had invested less time in politics. "If I really wanted to make more money, there's no way I'd be doing what I'm doing now," he said.

But even critics concede that Mr. Billingsley has not tried to maintain that kind of role on the state level now that Mr. Glendening is governor. During the 1994 campaign, he was content to serve as a core adviser and member of the transition team.

Neither he nor anyone from his firm of Meyers, Billingsley, Rodbell & Rosenbaum is registered to lobby in Annapolis despite a potentially lucrative offer Mr. Billingsley said was made to him by a casino company hoping to gain access.

"He's reached the point in life where he wants to take it easy," Senate President Miller said.

"Governor Glendening listens to him, but I don't think Lance has a great say in government. We would have a more competent administration if he did," said Mr. Miller, who as a Prince George's senator has been a long-standing political adversary of Mr. Glendening.

Since his appointment as chairman in June, Mr. Billingsley has been spending two mornings each week in the regents office working at his unsalaried post. A board of visitors member as well as a longtime athletic booster at College Park, he is still trying to get his arms around the other elements of a diverse system that he said he believes has "no overwhelming problems."

He said his goals are to find more entrepreneurial opportunities for campuses, such as the Redskins' summer training camp at Frostburg State. He also wants to encourage more financial support from alumni and the communities that benefit from the campuses. The only immediate fix, he said, would be a better name for the board so people don't assume it governs only the College Park campus.

"The system is in good shape," he said. "Its resources are limited, and that does concern me."

One thing is certain, if Mr. Billingsley wants to chat with the governor about that, the door is open. Only first lady Frances Hughes Glendening is thought to be a closer adviser. The two men talk at least once a week, and the families socialize regularly. Mr. Glendening said he often likes to bounce ideas off his friend.

"Sometimes there are wrong decisions, and he'll say, 'You really messed up on this,' " Mr. Glendening said. "We disagree on some policies."

Love for public service

In many ways, Mr. Billingsley is the more natural politician, more comfortable with the glad-handing and backslapping, Mr. Glendening more intrigued with policy and issues. But both men said they are bound by an affection for public service.

Above Mr. Billingsley's desk in Riverdale is an artist's rendering of the Kennedy brothers Robert, John and Edward, laughing and drinking beer.

Mr. Billingsley fondly recalls serving as a student host to then-Sen. John F. Kennedy at a College Park appearance.

Who knew that 3 1/2 decades later, he'd be advising a candidate for governor to appoint John Kennedy's niece, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, as his running mate?

"Jack was able to understand that he didn't have to take himself too seriously," Mr. Billingsley said. "That's a very important lesson for people in politics to understand. Part of life is that it's not predictable."

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