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Rawlings building next wave of leaders


DON'T CALL him Boss Pete.

But do call Del. Howard P. Rawlings a risk-taker and big winner in Tuesday's primary.

Not many of the old bosses ever had an Election Day as good as this one was for Baltimore's Pete Rawlings.

Some resent his success. None can deny it.

He helped defeat the last remaining public official bearing the once-magic-in-Baltimore name of Mitchell.

His candidate for city state's attorney, Patricia C. Jessamy, won big.

He supported state Senate candidate Del. Lisa A. Gladden, who sent a powerful Senate committee chair, Barbara A. Hoffman, into early retirement.

He finished first in his own re-election campaign.

His son was elected to the 40th District Democratic Central Committee.

As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, he remains Baltimore's man to see in Annapolis.

His ability will be tested further with Ms. Hoffman gone, but he is the city's last really influential member of the General Assembly.

If he had not already attained the distinction, he became the most powerful African-American legislator in the history of Maryland.

This campaign gave him an opportunity to make public his private effort to be the political midwife for a new generation of city leaders.

A man who has battled cancer, Mr. Rawlings surely had his own mortality in mind as he pushed new black leadership. "I feel a great sense of accomplishment for the community I'm a member of, the African-American community. I'm pleased to have contributed to this extraordinary success," he said.

He says he put about $50,000 of his own campaign money behind Ms. Gladden in her race against Senator Hoffman.

Ms. Gladden's victory reduces the city's power in Annapolis significantly. As chair of the Committee on Budget and Taxation, Ms. Hoffman was the architect of a political deal that put the Thornton Commission's aid-to-education formula into law. That deal alone guarantees Baltimore hundreds of millions in education aid every year.

But Mr. Rawlings had a different view. "I had a moral duty to support a decision of a credible African-American leader who said we should not concede the loss of a state Senate seat we held for 32 years in a 71 percent black district."

He knew his willingness to see Senator Hoffman gone would bring him bitter criticism and be misunderstood. He said the district's voters needed a senator "who looks like them, smells like them and thinks like them." When black voters support black candidates, he says, they're made to feel guilty -- as if Irish, Italian, Jewish and other ethnic groups hadn't done the same thing for generations. His language, still reverberating in parts of the district, was designed to overcome what he calls an intimidation factor.

He has no doubt he chose the right path for him and his community. "When you take risks and you win, it's always comforting," he said.

As Appropriations Committee chairman, he has dealt forcefully with real anger and misunderstanding in the black community. He held back money the city or Morgan State University thought it needed immediately.

His view: If the city school system or Morgan did not comply with the rules, he would turn off the faucet. He could not maintain the integrity of his committee's process of handing out money if he suspended the rules for Baltimore. Opponents in the city tried to defeat him for that -- and failed miserably.

Some criticized him this year for ranging outside his 40th District to work for Ms. Gladden. He didn't listen.

He was an early supporter of Del. Verna L. Jones, who defeated Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, grandson of the late Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., former NAACP Washington lobbyist who was credited with helping to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

Chairman Rawlings had called Mr. Mitchell "our most despicable senator" after Mr. Mitchell failed to support a bill designed to stop racial profiling. More successful risk-taking by Mr. Rawlings.

In the final days of the campaign, he worked hard to get Mayor Martin O'Malley's endorsement for Ms. Jessamy. Mr. Rawlings, who supported Mr. O'Malley, who is white, in 1999, thought the mayor would be a long-term winner with Ms. Jessamy. Even if she lost, he'd be on the side of the political angels. The mayor stayed neutral, half a Rawlings victory.

Now he'll be the mayor's go-to guy in Annapolis. They won't have Barbara Hoffman to absorb some of the bitterness Baltimore encounters when it goes after state money -- particularly when there is a deficit of $1 billion or more.

Pete Rawlings has plenty of respect in Annapolis, but collecting the spoils of victory there won't be easy.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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