The freshly installed burgundy carpet that blankets the second floor of the Maryland State House smells like victory. And power.
Leaving footprints there every day is a team of behind-the-scenes players new to Annapolis but not to government life.
The most coveted offices in town - those closest to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and thus nearest the epicenter of political power in Maryland - now belong to Steven L. Kreseski, the straight-backed, even-tempered chief of staff to the governor, and two deputy chiefs, Mary Beth Carozza and Edward McDonald.
If they do their jobs well, they will never become household names.
But within the insular world of the state capital, everyone will soon learn who they are: the loyal aides with tremendous access to the governor's ear. They're the outsiders from Washington who now have the machinery of an 80,000-person bureaucracy at their fingertips.
For decades, these positions have been held by loyal Democrats who, after having reached the pinnacle of second-floor employment, have never gone jobless again. Now it is the Republicans' turn, and a profile seems to be emerging of the type of person Ehrlich wants around.
Similarities abound among the three members of the new Republican power squad. All three were born in Baltimore, rising from working-class backgrounds to the corridors of power on Capitol Hill.
Each is a former congressional chief of staff; all three are Catholic, unwed, willing to work 15-hour-plus days and totally devoted to their boss.
"You have incredible talent here," Ehrlich says. "Some of the models we've seen on Capitol Hill, we're bringing here."
Yet the going may not be easy. Annapolis is a smaller field than Washington and presumably easier to navigate. But there are relationships to build, egos to assuage. And there is an entire government to run - not just a congressional office.
"The prevailing wisdom is that some of the Washington folks aren't going to last long," says Michael Golden, a spokesman for Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. "They don't know state politics. They're applying Washington principles to Annapolis, and they are two different animals."
Kreseski, 46, said his boss never formally offered him the chief of staff position. And he never really accepted.
The day after the election, Ehrlich made an impromptu announcement during a news conference at a downtown hotel: Kreseski did a double take when he heard his name called out.
"He was walking in the back of the room," the governor says. "When you announce people, it takes away their opportunity to say no."
Of course, it was no surprise. Kreseski held the same title in Ehrlich's congressional office and has been by his side for nine years, a trusted adviser, a close friend.
Born in the city's Hamilton neighborhood, Kreseski's early days mirror those of his boss. His athletic talent earned him a scholarship to the McDonogh School, though he wasn't good enough to line up on a football field against Ehrlich, who was at Gilman at the same time.
"I never played against Bob," Kreseski says. "He played varsity. He was much better."
Kreseski attended Gettysburg College and received a degree from the University of Baltimore Law School.
His work as a clerk for Baltimore Circuit Court Judge J. Harold Grady provided an opening to the world of Maryland politics. A former Baltimore mayor, Grady had been a product of the political machine of Irv Kovens and was a law school classmate of former Gov. Marvin Mandel's. He knew how things worked.
In 1984, Kreseski went to Annapolis for a formative four-month stint as a legislative bill drafter, a low-level position that exposed him to leading players and issues.
Kreseski spent the next seven years as a trial lawyer, working for Joseph A. Schwartz III, an Annapolis lobbyist who represents clients such as Eli Lilly and Co., the state medical society and Waste Management Inc.
Apart from a taste for beer, Kreseski has few vices, Schwartz said. He puts in extremely long hours - one day last week he left his desk after 1 a.m. for his Washington apartment and was back before 8:30 a.m. - and treats his colleagues well.
"He doesn't have the seamy underside that some people might like to read about," Schwartz says. "He's honorable. He's honest. He's very hard working, and he's very kind. He loves public policy more than he ever loved the law."
Ehrlich and Kreseski met about 1990 as members of the Exchange Club of Towson, a service group. Ehrlich was a state delegate, and Kreseski would soon become a Washington lobbyist for pharmaceutical and consumer-products firms.
Kreseski's industry connections helped Ehrlich as he was gathering cash for his first congressional bid in 1994. "I got him his first PAC check, and I was part of his kitchen Cabinet," Kreseski said. Since then, he said, he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Ehrlich, although he has never taken a formal role in his campaigns.
As chief of staff to first Congressman Ehrlich, and now Governor Ehrlich, Kreseski calls himself "the constant who was always there."
Although he concedes he would like to return to Washington as a lobbyist eventually, he said he is thrilled with his assignment. "I'm the humble bill drafter who spent his whole life for this moment," he said.
Carozza hesitated a bit before joining the Ehrlich administration. She had a job she loved, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, based at the Pentagon. But working in her home state was an opportunity too good to pass up.
The eldest of four children, Carozza, 41, was born in Baltimore and attended St. Mary's School in Govans until the fourth grade. That's when her father sold his three Tony's Snack Shack sandwich shops and plowed the proceeds into an Ocean City fast-food restaurant.
The family lived two blocks away from the business, Beefy's on 17th Street, and everyone was expected to pitch in. "All four kids were working in my dad and mom's business," she says. "That's where we learned our work ethic. I was the one who tended to stay on the cash register. Dad probably liked having a family member on the cash register."
She recently bought a house in Ocean City near her family and intends to return regularly.
A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, Carozza earned a partial tennis scholarship to Catholic University in Washington, where she played singles.
From school, she went straight to Capitol Hill, first as an assistant press secretary to former Sen. William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican, then as press secretary to then-Rep. Mike DeWine of Ohio, also a Republican.
She became chief of staff to DeWine's successor, Rep. Dave L. Hobson, and stayed 10 years before leaving for a Pentagon position. That background has earned her the nickname "Warrior Princess," which seems to be sticking inside the State House.
"Our job after 9/11 was to build and sustain support for the war against terrorism," Carozza says, adding that her high point was rounding up votes for the October resolution giving President Bush authority to use force in Iraq.
Carozza says she always considered Ehrlich an "up-and-comer." While reluctant to tell her boss that she was leaving, Carozza says she had a feeling Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld would understand. After all, both he and Ehrlich are Princeton University graduates.
After she submitted her resignation, Rumsfeld pounced on her the next time he saw her. "He grabbed me by the lapels," Carozza says, and told her: "'This is your chance. Don't blow it.'"
'Chance to come home'
McDonald says he was drawn to politics and civics at an early age, and picked a career path that didn't quite work out.
"All I ever wanted to be was a reporter," says McDonald, 47. "I wanted to be the true journalist, ferreting out good and evil. I was the geek who was reading the newspaper every day."
But getting there was tougher than he thought.
Born in Edmondson Village, McDonald was the third of six children of an A&P; grocery chain baker. When he was in the fourth grade, his family moved from Baltimore to Reisterstown. Racial block-busting had swept the neighborhood; his was the last white family to leave Colborne Road.
The family didn't have enough money to send him to college after graduation from Franklin High School, so he worked his way though then-Towson State University as a cashier at a succession of supermarkets. "I think I closed every A&P; in the Baltimore area," he says.
At Towson, McDonald enlisted at the radio station and was hooked. "My big memory from Towson was I announced on the air that Gary Gilmore had been executed," he recalls. But he couldn't land a perma- nent job in Baltimore after graduation.
He headed to a small station in Oneonta, N.Y., to fatten his resume but still couldn't find anything in Baltimore. A "position wanted" ad he placed in a trade publication led to a radio job in Greensboro, N.C.
After three years, McDonald wanted a change and decided to head to California for a beach-bum lifestyle. But before he left, without much thought, he signed on as press secretary for a North Carolina state legislator by the name of Howard Coble who was running for Congress.
Unexpectedly, Coble won. "He really screwed up my life," McDonald quips. "I was planning to surf for two years."
McDonald spent 18 years with Coble, first as press secretary, then adding the duties of chief of staff.
"Here's a guy who wants to do two jobs and not get paid for two jobs," the congressman says of McDonald. "That shows me a lot of style."
On Capitol Hill, McDonald always kept a foot in Maryland, attending several dozen Orioles games a year and packing his office with baseball memorabilia. "I said he was the No. 1 Baltimore Orioles fan on Capitol Hill," Coble says.
Coble and Ehrlich frequently played tennis together, and their chiefs of staff became friends.
"The only [job] discussion we had was on Election Day," McDonald says. "Steve [Kreseski] told me, 'We want to try to drag you into the governor's office.' I thought nothing of it."
Though McDonald leaves two years short of full retirement benefits, he's not looking back.
"I like the intimacy of this institution," he says. "It was a chance to come home, to my home state."
Their second floor State House walls are still bare, the odor of fresh paint is fading. Kreseski, Carozza and McDonald are still sorting out their responsibilities.
And many are watching how they do. While their Maryland roots provide a foundation, together, they have about 50 years of Washington experience - a questionable commodity in Annapolis.
Reports of tension between Ehrlich's Washington aides and his Maryland-based staff - such as Paul E. Schurick, head of communications and strategic planning and a former chief of staff to Schaefer when he was governor - have surfaced.
"They have to be careful about trying to come across as if they know more than the people who have been here," says Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat who was once an aide to former U.S. Rep. Michael Barnes.
"There are stark differences between Capitol Hill culture and the-capital-of-Maryland ways of doing business," Bronrott says. "Annapolis tends to be more hands-on and homegrown and much more driven by the legislators. Whereas Capitol Hill is much more about staff taking control of the direction of policy."
But all three aides reject the idea that Washington and Annapolis won't mesh. Kreseski points out his ties to lawmakers. McDonald notes he was once a Democrat.
State House veterans, Kreseski says, will be impressed when they observe the team in action.
"I know how talented they are," he says. "You haven't seen anything yet."