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Walter Orlinsky, colorful city politician, dies at 63


Walter S. Orlinsky, the maverick Democrat, former delegate and Baltimore City Council president whose colorful political career came to an end in 1982 after he pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe from a sludge-hauling firm, died yesterday of colon cancer at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care in Towson. He was 63.

"He was one of the most brilliant politicians in the history of Baltimore," said former state Sen. Julian "Jack" Lapides. "He was an incredible mind and was totally consumed by politics.

"He hated being No. 2 because he had no doubts about his own ability. Unfortunately, there were always people ahead of him in the No. 1 place," Mr. Lapides said.

"He was one of the brightest men I have ever known in the history of politics," comptroller and former governor William Donald Schaefer said last night. "He had some tough times, but he was a good guy, a good friend."

On an early spring afternoon in 1982, Mr. Orlinsky, then-City Council president, went to Trattoria Petrucci in Little Italy, where he accepted an envelope stuffed with $2,532 in cash from an FBI informant.

The cash was an installment on a $10,032 bribe from Modern Earthline, a Philadelphia-based company, for Mr. Orlinsky's role in helping the company secure a contract hauling sludge to abandoned strip mines in Western Maryland.

Mr. Orlinsky, whose career began amid the idealism of '60s liberalism, resigned his City Council post in September 1982 and pleaded guilty to one count of extortion. Sentenced to six months in prison, he was paroled after serving 4 1/2 months at Allenwood Prison Camp in Pennsylvania, and returned to his Bolton Hill home in 1983.

At the time of his release, Mr. Orlinsky said, "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime."

Disbarred and with his political career at an end, Mr. Orlinsky then completed 2,080 hours of court-ordered community service by working for the Regional Planning Council, co-teaching a politics course at Towson State and volunteering for the city Urban Service Agency's Project Survival.

He then embarked on a 20-year odyssey that saw him working as a restaurant maitre d' at Al's Seafood, an Eastern Avenue restaurant, and at a variety of other jobs.

A man of almost Falstaffian proportions and a taste for wide-lapeled, colorful tweed sports jackets and the occasional derby hat, Mr. Orlinsky returned to government in 1988 when then-Governor Schaefer appointed him executive director of TREE-MENDOUS MARYLAND. Under his direction, the group planted about 6.5 million trees across the state.

After that, he worked as a $10-an-hour lemonade salesman at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and founded the now-defunct Baltimore News newspaper in East Baltimore.

Two years ago, Mr. Orlinsky received a presidential pardon from President Bill Clinton.

"You can't ever quite walk away. It is something. In the way America works, this is kind of something that says - at least from a societal point of view - that you have paid your dues," he told The Sun.

"I am not sure that I shall ever be able to fully pardon myself for what I did. In my heart, there will always remain a place which says I did wrong. It will remind me of my continuing responsibility to try to heal the wounds of my sin," he said.

Since 2000, he had worked with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City as an "Energy Analyst II," in its Project Reconnect, helping families who face having their power turned off.

"He obviously had lots of experience in government, and he did what he could to help us better serve the people of the city," Mayor Martin O'Malley said. "But he was just as frail as the rest of us mortals, and he went through his travails with a great deal of courage. He didn't hide or go away; instead, he picked himself up off the mat and went on with his life."

Born in Baltimore, the son of a nationally respected linguist and biblical scholar, Mr. Orlinsky possessed an interest and fascination with politics that dated to his undergraduate days at the Johns Hopkins University, and continued while he earned his law degree from the University of Maryland Law School. As a young man, he was a City Council page and wrote letters to The Sun's editor decrying construction of the Interstate 95 highway through Baltimore and a planned bridge across the Inner Harbor.

"It is a calling he obviously loves, one that allows him to slap backs and schmooze and be his rambunctious self," noted The Sun in a 1983 profile. "But there is more: Mr. Orlinsky is a different kind of politician. He has an intellectual love of government and the way that government, at its best, can solve problems and improve the future for its citizens."

"He was a larger-than-life figure, dynamic and energetic, always interested in government-policy issues," said Frank O. Heinz, BGE president, who served with him in the General Assembly. "Wally liked both the politics of governance with the politics."

He was elected to the House of Delegates from Baltimore's 2nd District in 1966 and was elected City Council president in 1971. He also unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1978, while continuing to keep his City Hall post.

"He was a very bright and competent individual when serving in the General Assembly. He was well aware of what was happening and had a definite grasp and understanding of issues," said former Gov. Marvin Mandel. "He did an excellent job as a legislator, and his approach lent itself to humor. He used it to get people to talk and work with him."

Mr. Orlinsky was 33 when elected president of the City Council, and from the outset it was clear that he and then-Mayor Schaefer were very different people in both temperament and approach. "We differ in style. I tend to run, he tends to walk," he told The Sun in 1972.

"He has refused to be a team player in the powerful Schaefer administration, choosing instead to be the voice of dissent. That posture, best characterized by his vocal opposition to the subway, has caused him to be frozen out of the city's power structure, leaving him ample time to pursue statewide ambitions," The Sun noted in 1978 when he was running for governor.

"Mr. Orlinsky, praised by some of his foes for his creativity, intelligence and sensitivity, often appears more notable for his buffoonery, crudeness and negativism," The Sun reported in 1981.

He opposed Mayor Schaefer on Harborplace, one-time subsidies for the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center, and the plan to close Holliday Street in front of City Hall, transforming it into the plaza that is now its entrance.

In a 1981 move clearly designed to embarrass Mr. Schaefer, he introduced a resolution naming the new plaza Al Speer Plaza, after Albrecht Speer, Hitler's favorite architect, who designed many of the Third Reich's buildings.

At the same time, some of his own ideas could sometimes be downright silly. He advocated the building of an elevated people-mover to transport passengers around the Inner Harbor.

As chairman of the city's Bicentennial Committee, he supervised the baking of an 18-ton bicentennial birthday cake that made its way into the Guinness Book of Records and later sat rotting aboard a rat-filled barge tied to a Pratt Street pier.

"Wally was all over the spectrum, but unfortunately his mouth often got out in front of him. He did both stupid and brilliant things and had an incredible imagination," said Christopher C. Hartman, chairman of the first three City Fairs and now a public relations consultant.

"He never believed in just going along, and I think Schaefer realized ultimately that underneath all of Wally's bluster there was a very decent and smart fellow. And it was Schaefer who took care of him after his release from prison," he said.

Friends recalled him as a classic urban liberal. During the 1960s, he opposed the Vietnam War and worked toward multiracial political tickets. In 1968, he was a founder of the New Democratic Club 2, a 2nd District city group that ran a coalition slate with the predominantly black Eastside Democratic Organization.

"He had an idea a minute," said Joyce Leviton, also a New Democratic Club founder and a longtime friend.

"He was energetic. I can remember being on the phone with one person, putting a second a hold, and talking to a third person who'd walk in - and keeping the conversation going with all three.

"In the late '60s in Bolton Hill - where he lived - there were people who had just moved downtown who felt they were urban pioneers," Ms. Leviton said. "They were committed to civil rights, social justice and ending the Vietnam War. Wally had a silver tongue. He had a way of getting these people excited on those issues."

Toward the end of his 10 years as City Council president, The Sun described his tenure: "He has frequently come across as the ringmaster of a legislative body whose weekly meetings are the politician equivalent of Ringling Brothers."

He frequently battled verbally with Mayor Schaefer. In 1980, when a $3 million hotel loan came before the Board of Estimates, where both officials had seats, Mr. Schaefer pointedly criticized "certain persons who spend most of their time trying to stop the progress of the city." Mr. Orlinsky in turn criticized Mr. Schaefer's "opaqueness and pettiness."

He later said, "I have learned how to live with this mayor. Somewhat."

In recent years, Mr. Orlinsky, whose homes were filled with green plants and paintings of Baltimore, continued to keep an eye on city issues. To that end, he became a prolific contributor of letters and op-ed articles to The Sun.

"He was very intelligent and had a real love and knowledge of the city," said Robert C. Embry Jr., a former neighbor who directs the Abell Foundation. "Up to his last moment, he never surrendered his passion for Baltimore."

"Wally never lost any of his bravado," said Louise Keelty, a political colleague and friend. "He was competent, smart, funny. He was one of the most loyal people. He was involved years ago, and he stayed involved. I don't think he ever lost his commitment to issues."

Beginning in 1999, Mr. Orlinsky became a volunteer at the Rose Street Community Center, an East Baltimore agency in a drug-plagued neighborhood.

"He gave us a lot of background and information," said Clayton Guyton, the center's director. "He joined us quickly and without hesitation. He'd bring us paper and pencils and rulers - anything we needed he could find."

"He cared about people, the little people," his wife, Judy Orlinsky, said last night. "He's going to leave a great, great hole in the universe."

Born in Baltimore and reared in Reservoir Hill, he spent his teen-age years in New York City, where his father, Harry Orlinsky, was a prominent scholar who later studied the Dead Sea Scrolls.

His 1961 marriage to the former Jo-Ann Mayer ended in divorce.

He is survived by his wife of 12 years, the former Judy Longenecker Taylor; a son, Eric G. Orlinsky of Baltimore; a daughter, Judith A. Orlinsky of Baltimore; a brother, S. Zeke Orlinsky of Boca Raton, Fla.; and six grandchildren. Funeral arrangements had not been completed last night.

Sun staff writer Johnathon E. Briggs contributed to this article.

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