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For DiPaula, political profile grows with new job

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Probably the biggest difference for James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. when he moves into his new office as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s chief of staff tomorrow is that he'll do a lot less walking.

Far from an obscure number cruncher, Ehrlich's budget secretary has worn a path between his Calvert Street office and the governor's suite on the State House's second floor as he has been called upon to provide guidance and lobbying muscle on a host of high-profile issues, most notably the effort to legalize slot machines.

A Baltimore native who was recruited by first lady Kendel Ehrlich to manage her husband's campaign, DiPaula, 43, is already one of the most powerful officials in state government and will now be at the governor's right hand as he puts the finishing touches on his case for re-election.

"Putting Chip DiPaula in this position is putting a campaign strategist right beside the governor. Every decision that's made from now on will be made with November in mind," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "Basically, in my opinion, Chip DiPaula will be in charge of what happens in the campaign and what happens on the second floor."

DiPaula, a former real estate developer with a business degree from Towson University, downplays his role as a political guru for the administration, saying he will be charged with executing the governor's vision, much in the same way a chief operating officer would in the private sector.

He was greeted with skepticism by some legislative leaders when he switched from running Ehrlich's campaign to managing the state's $24 billion budget, which was then facing a $1.8 billion shortfall, but many of those doubts have been erased as legislators found him to be smart, personable and hard-working.

"He has made a very strong effort to build his own expertise in the area of budgeting, and some of the ideas he had, he convinced the governor to incorporate into his budget practices," said Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee. "He worked very hard at trying to understand the budget and worked very hard on selling his points of view."

But it is not his management savvy alone that has brought DiPaula to the highest levels of state government. He brings with him a 20-year relationship with the governor and impressive credentials as an administration power broker.

The man DiPaula is replacing, Steven L. Kreseski, who is leaving for a private lobbying career, is a consummate Ehrlich loyalist. He served Ehrlich's congressional chief of staff for eight years, helped launch the governor's long-shot campaign three years ago and has been an architect of the administration.

'Nineteen'

But DiPaula is so central a figure in Ehrlich's circle that when a magazine ranked the most powerful Marylanders, he came in at No. 19 - three spots ahead of the governor. Ehrlich jokingly calls him "Nineteen" at public events.

When Ehrlich announced his campaign for governor, DiPaula, who was then wrapping up his job as chairman of the 2000 Republican National Convention and looking into private-sector business opportunities, was not heavily involved. Then he got a call from Kendel Ehrlich inviting him to dinner.

He had been friends with the Ehrlichs since the 1980s, when he was working and living in the Baltimore County legislative district where the future governor served as a member of the House of Delegates. DiPaula said he agreed with Ehrlich's vision for the state and volunteered on some campaigns.

But what really cemented his admiration for the future governor came in 1994, DiPaula said. At the time, Ehrlich was making his first run for Congress and DiPaula was running for the House of Delegates in a crowded Republican primary in a Towson district. Established politicians often don't make endorsements in party primaries for fear of alienating their own potential supporters, but Ehrlich endorsed DiPaula anyway.

"That one action has meant a lot to me," said DiPaula, who lost the primary.

In 2002, with that on his mind and Kendel Ehrlich's lasagna in his stomach - "She was going after my Italian heritage," he said - DiPaula abandoned his plans to return to the business world and agreed to manage the campaign.

Pursuing 'fiscal sanity'

After Ehrlich's victory against then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, DiPaula stayed on as budget secretary, charged with fulfilling a central promise of the governor's campaign: to "restore fiscal sanity" to Annapolis.

Revenue was down because of the recession and tax cuts passed under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, but state expenses were scheduled to rise sharply in large part because of a landmark school-funding program the legislature passed in 2002, known as the Thornton plan.

Ehrlich's idea for balancing the budget was to raise revenue by legalizing slot machines and to save money by streamlining government programs. DiPaula was largely in charge of making both happen.

He has yet to succeed with slots, but the state's budget picture is much improved. The government is now set to end this year with a budget surplus DiPaula estimates at $800 million.

His roles in drafting budgets, lobbying for slots and giving advice on other policy issues have put DiPaula in the public eye more than Kreseski or other chiefs of staff were. DiPaula said he'd like to continue his role in working with the legislature, but Eugene R. Lynch, who served as Glendening's chief of staff, said that might be easier said than done.

Job is 'beyond intense'

"The job is beyond intense," Lynch said. "You might want to go downstairs and speak on some topic and have some conversations with the legislators, but you have 35 things you've got to finish in the next 20 minutes, and there is a document the governor is going to have to sign, and it better be right because there's no going back."

But Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who regularly pokes fun at DiPaula at Board of Public Works meetings, said there's no limit to what he can do.

"He can be doing five jobs at once and do them all well," Schaefer said. "Without him, the governor might have been in sad shape."

When Kreseski took the job, it was more difficult than usual because he had to help create the state's first Republican government in 36 years. But DiPaula takes over at a time when the state's political attention is focused on an even rarer prospect: a Republican governor running for re-election.

DiPaula insists that the looming 2006 campaign will not be a distraction.

"The governor and I are focused on governing," DiPaula said. "Others want to start the campaign early. There's no need for that."

Miller said that as pleasant and earnest as DiPaula is, he can't escape his political nature. But Miller added that having the former campaign manager's political spin on the administration isn't necessarily bad.

"He has velvet-covered steel fists. He smiles at you the same time he's sticking it to you," Miller said. "At the same time, he makes sure the governor doesn't self-destruct. ... I think he has his feet on the ground, and I think he can advise the governor when the right wing is pushing too far."

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