Michael Howard Davis, a lawyer and partner with Venable LLP in Towson who earlier had been a political adviser, strategist and aide to former Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, died Thursday of complications from a liver transplant at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 49.
"I think Michael had the most brilliant political mind in the state of Maryland if not the country. He had a knack for recognizing upcoming political trends," said Mr. Ruppersberger, now a congressman from Maryland's 2nd District. "He was extremely intense and smart. He loved working in government."
Mr. Davis, who lived in Owings Mills, managed Mr. Sarbanes' successful campaigns in 1988, 1994 and 2000. "He was a great and wonderful friend, and an enjoyable person to be with," recalled Mr. Sarbanes.
"Michael had terrific political insight and was a great political strategist, and he always felt very keenly a citizen's responsibility in a democracy," he said. "His death is such a blow for his family, friends and country."
"His hobby was politics," said his wife of 24 years, the former Ann Royston, who teaches at Roland Park Country School. "It was the driving force that directed his life."
The son of a Baltimore police officer and a homemaker, Mr. Davis was born in Baltimore and raised in Randallstown.
It was while attending Gilman School on a scholarship and playing varsity football that Mr. Davis met Nick Schloeder, a teacher and coach who was to play a pivotal role in his life. A Democrat from New Jersey who hailed from Frank "I am the Law" Hague's Hudson County, Mr. Schloeder required his students to volunteer in local politics to interest them in current events.
Mr. Davis chose the 1976 campaign of Mr. Sarbanes. "I was precinct captain at a couple of Randallstown precincts. I caught the [political] bug," he told The Sun in a 1995 interview.
"When Michael was at Gilman, it was very clear he was very smart. I was both his coach and teacher, and over the years, we became very close friends.," said Mr. Schloeder, who had been an adviser to Mr. Sarbanes for 40 years and who retired from Gilman in 1997.
"He had the ability to work at all political levels and was a tremendous problem solver," Mr. Schloeder said. "He was a gentleman, but he was tough."
After graduating from Gilman in 1978, Mr. Davis earned a bachelor's degree in 1982 in economics and political science from Harvard University. He earned his law degree in 1985 from the University of Maryland. While attending law school, Mr. Davis worked on then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer's 1983 re-election campaign. He did both, he told The Sun in 1995, by borrowing fellow students' notes.
He began his legal career with Smith Somerville & Case, before joining Venable, where he became a partner in 1994.
In 1990, the Schaefer campaign assigned him to help state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, who was running on a ticket with Mr. Ruppersberger, then a county councilman. It was Mr. Davis who drafted the strategy that in 1994 got Mr. Ruppersberger elected Baltimore County executive, unseating Republican incumbent Roger B. Hayden.
"He was the key player behind my election in 1994, a year when the Republicans took everything," Mr. Ruppersberger recalled.
In 1995, Mr. Davis took a leave from Venable and became Mr. Ruppersberger's executive officer, acquiring the nickname "Little Dutch." As The Sun observed in 1996: "Ask Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger a question, and sometimes Michael H. Davis answers before the executive can open his mouth. Davis is the executive's spokesman and a whole lot more.
"He is labor negotiator, lobbyist, political guru, confident, friend, and the man pacing at policy meetings. ... He also finds time to coach his children in sports."
In 2000, Mr. Davis resigned, citing financial reasons. At the time, Mr. Ruppersberger credited his adviser with securing more state money for schools and neighborhoods and with building relationships with state legislators, county school officials and the County Council. Never a "yes" man, Mr. Davis had a reputation for being both candid and blunt.
Richard Parsons, a retired Baltimore County librarian and a West Towson neighborhood activist, said, "Those of us, especially the sitters at the 'other table,' will remember Mike as an astute, knowledgeable, affable, friendly person, easy to work with - though not necessarily successfully."
Mr. Davis resumed his legal career at Venable, lending his expertise to zoning and land- use matters. "He was just a brilliant strategist, and what made him so important to what we do is that he'd always find solutions that were acceptable to both the client and the government," said Robert A. Hoffman, a longtime friend and partner in charge of Venable's Towson office.
Mr. Davis was an avid reader and a collector of books dealing with history and politics.
Plans for a memorial service were incomplete yesterday.
Besides his wife, survivors include a son, Robert S. Davis, a junior at the Naval Academy; two daughters, Jessie A. Davis, a sophomore at Fordham University, and Blair R. Davis, a junior at Roland Park Country School; his parents, Arnie and Helen Davis of Taneytown; a brother, Glen Davis of Owings Mills; and two sisters, Lisa Rozanski and Laura Shickman, both of Taneytown.