Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's high-profile and innovative health commissioner for more than a decade, will tell his staff today that he is resigning his post at the end of next week to run for Maryland's 3rd District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Beilenson - known for bringing to the city an array of initiatives ranging from needle exchange to interventions to combat youth violence - said last night that he will officially announce June 22 that he is running for the congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.
The 45-year-old head of the city's Health Department said that he is leaving office now to begin campaigning without running afoul of the Hatch Act, the federal law that restricts political activity of federal employees and those who oversee federal funds.
"You need a good year to 15 months to run a serious campaign ... and to go to all parts of this very far-reaching district," Beilenson said of the oddly configured district that includes parts of Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City.
State Del. Neil F. Quinter is the only announced Democratic candidate for the seat that Cardin has held for 19 years but is relinquishing to run for the U.S. Senate seat of Paul S. Sarbanes, who is retiring. But several others are considering House bids, including state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger of Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.
The son of a former California congressman, Beilenson has never held elective office, though he ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates in 1990 and the City Council in 1991.
A year later, Beilenson - who earned his medical degree from Emory University in Atlanta and received public health training at the Johns Hopkins University - was appointed health commissioner by former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and is one of a handful of high-ranking city officials to have remained in office under Mayor Martin O'Malley.
His tenure - which saw a marked increase in drug treatment and a sharp decline in the rate of HIV transmission from mothers to their babies, several categories of sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis cases - drew praise last night from public health experts and city officials alike.
Nelson J. Sabatini, former state health secretary, called Beilenson "one of the best health officers in the country."
"He's a bright and dedicated guy," said Sabatini, who credited Beilenson with having "the guts" to start a needle exchange program in 1994 and increasing immunization rates for city children by making the shots a requirement for school admission.
"Peter's never shied away from doing the right thing," he said.
"Dr. Beilenson was an incredibly valued member of the mayor's Cabinet and probably one of finest health commissioners in America," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "He will be missed, and the mayor wishes him well in his future endeavors."
City Council President Sheila Dixon complimented Beilenson's work, noting his efforts to increase drug-treatment funding and provide health care for the uninsured. However, when it came to animal-control issues and health inspections of restaurants, she gave him a grade of C.
A city audit this year of the Health Department's Bureau of Food Control for the 18 months from July 1, 2002, through Dec. 31, 2003, found that one in four food-service facilities operated with an expired license and one in 10 did not receive required inspections.
Dixon also said that with O'Malley all but cetain to run for governor next year, it would be difficult to find a replacement for the short-term position.
"What's going to happen with the health department?" she asked.
City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Jr., chairman of the Education, Housing, Health and Human Services committee, praised Beilenson's advocacy of Baltimore health issues. "It'll be big shoes we have to full," he said.
Considered outspoken and at times abrasive, Beilenson has never shied away from dispute. One of his most controversial initiatives came early in his tenure with the introduction of Norplant contraceptive kits for sexually active teenage girls, a program that drew accusations of racism from several African- American leaders.
Youth violence an issue
Beilenson notes as one of his major accomplishments broadening the scope of local public health to include such areas as juvenile violence. He also says he is one of several people who have "changed the dialogue on crime and drugs."
"Everyone - judges, prosecutors, [Maryland public safety and corrections secretary] Mary Ann Saar - all agree we need more treatment," said Beilenson, who has overseen a more than doubling in treatment slots in the past seven years.
Beilenson also helped found the Health Care for All Coalition, whose agenda to get universal health coverage in the state included a push for the so-called Wal-Mart bill requiring large employers to designate a certain percentage of their payrolls for health care. The measure was recently vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Beilenson said the job has given him widespread attention over the years, and that his experience as a public health official who responsibly administered hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant money makes him a qualified and somewhat unusual candidate.
At least one political observer said he had "no idea" of Beilenson's political prospects.
"He's always been an up-and-up administrator," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "He just doesn't resonate outside of public health issues. But this is a wide-open race. Anybody who runs well can do well."
Sun staff writers David Nitkin, Dennis O'Brien, Jill Rosen and William Wan contributed to this article.