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Lawmaker poised to be treasurer


If applicants for the state treasurer's job listed themselves in the personal ads, here's how Nancy Kopp might be described: Bethesda housewife. Likes to read Jane Austen and take walks. Raised two kids, now willing to take full-time position.

Just as possible, though, is this resume: Intellectual, senior lawmaker and expert on state budget and education policy. Urged to take one of top jobs in Maryland by colleagues who can't stop gushing about her qualifications. (Currently reading a biography of Sir Isaac Newton.)

The General Assembly is poised to elect Del. Nancy K. Kopp as state treasurer, replacing Richard N. Dixon, who resigned Friday because of ill health. If chosen Tuesday - and it's almost assured that she will be - her $100,000-a-year job will be to oversee the state's investments and bank accounts, to sit on the Board of Public Works, which votes on major contracts, and to serve on the state pension board.

Ask legislators why they plan to vote for her, and two themes come up: Kopp, they say, is one of the smartest people they know, and one of the most sensible.

"We have a rule in this committee," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, where Kopp has served nearly 28 years. "It's called the Nancy Kopp Rule, and it goes like this: Anything Nancy Kopp wants, Nancy Kopp gets. And that's mainly because she doesn't want things you can't justify."

Kopp, 58, a Democrat, has spent her life in public service, a career she talks about with an idealism and earnestness that might sound trite coming from someone else, someone who didn't get visibly excited talking about a disability entitlement program she helped set up, or a college she helped reorganize.

"It's a wonderful thing," she said. "I mean, how else, other than in the General Assembly, would a housewife from Bethesda have a significant impact on the schools in Baltimore City?"

But after being a lawmaker for almost three decades, Kopp - after intense deliberation, her hallmark in Annapolis - decided she was ready to change.

"I know I'm going to miss a lot of what I'm doing in the legislature, but I also think a lot of the work that the treasurer does is fascinating," she said. While other minds might wander when confronting issues like capital debt affordability or bond ratings, Kopp's is animated by them.

She says she's looking forward to being a manager for the first time, to learning about investment and insurance, and even to the politics of the Board of Public Works - where meetings are often punctuated by Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's attacks on Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Because she lacks the investment expertise that marked Dixon's tenure, Kopp says she will rely on the state's advisers and investment managers. "But also, I am studying hard," she added.

Kopp was brought up during the Kennedy years, an era when public service was something to aspire to. Part of her childhood was spent near the University of Chicago, where her father worked as a nuclear physicist with Enrico Fermi.

Her mother was active with the League of Women Voters, and dinner-table discussions were about topics, not food. "They took public issues very seriously," she said of her parents. "And I saw it as part of my responsibility to take them seriously, too."

After graduating from Wellesley College in 1965, Kopp returned to Chicago for graduate work in political science. Her doctoral thesis, which she still regrets not finishing, was about Bernard Mandeville, an 18th-century political philosopher who wrote about the ambivalence of modern civil society and civic virtue.

"I always meant to be a professor of classical political theory," she said - and one can see her in that role. Certainly her adviser, Professor Joseph Cropsey, imagined it.

"I have been at the University of Chicago for 42 years," he said, "and in that time I have sent to the registrar approximately 5,600 grades. Of those, 12 have been A+. One of them was Nancy Kopp."

After a stint on Capitol Hill, where she worked for a House education subcommittee, Kopp applied for a job in Annapolis as an aide to the Montgomery County delegation. Former Del. Helen L. Koss, who later became one of Kopp's mentors, remembers her well.

"Not only was she capable, but she was interested," Koss said. "She probably spent more time than required to find out about what we were doing, and how it all worked. When she ran [for the House] in 1974, it was just a natural."

Two years later, she became the first state legislator to give birth. Her husband, Robert, an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, moved to Annapolis to help out during the session. ("We women in the legislature used to say that what we really needed was a good wife. And she had one," said Koss.)

Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Democrat, was sworn in as a delegate the same day as Kopp, and they served on the same committee.

"At first, her gender and her youth probably worked against her," he said. "But she was such a solid and disciplined thinker. The thing about the Appropriations Committee is that you have to absorb huge amounts of information and then analyze it. She was as good at that as anybody I've ever seen."

Over the years, as her hair has changed from a brunet flip to gray and stylishly short, Kopp has become known for her expertise on the budget and education funding. She is chairwoman of an education and economic development subcommittee, and heads another committee on state spending limits.

She speaks proudly of having helped reorganize the University System of Maryland, and of helping save Baltimore City Community College with state funds when the city could no longer afford to run it - a proposal that passed only after she took to the House floor to explain why it should.

In the early 1990s, Kopp was House speaker pro tem, and some colleagues think she could have become speaker if she hadn't endorsed a failed coup against then-Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr.

But Rawlings, for one, is thrilled to have had her remain in his committee all those years. He watched last year as she figured out how to resolve the contentious issue of giving more state money to private and religious schools, a concept she strongly opposed.

Her solution was to target the money to those schools with the neediest children, a plan that ultimately passed.

Other colleagues have seen her get obscure bills passed, such as one to study light pollution.

"She likes astronomy, and she got into light pollution," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, who represents the same district as Kopp. "It's something probably about one half of 1 percent of the people in the state are interested in, but she made it happen. ... And she'll actually read that task force report."

Frosh, who urged her to apply for the treasurer's job, has no doubt she'll succeed at it.

"There's no one in the state I'd rather have watching over my money and my pension," he said. "The thing about her is that she doesn't do it in her sleep, but she could if she wanted to."

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