Boyd Rutherford was shocked when he got a call more than a year ago from a little-known Republican businessman who was mounting an improbable campaign for governor.
The man on the other end of the line, Larry Hogan, wanted to know whether Rutherford — who had never before considered seeking public office — would be his running mate in a statewide campaign almost no one thought was winnable.
"We keep piling more and more work on him," Hogan said of Rutherford after announcing he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "Boyd has my back, there's no question about that."
And, Hogan added, "He is going to step up and do even more."
For Rutherford — the third African-American to serve as Maryland's lieutenant governor — taking on a more public role will represent a departure from a career that has largely played out behind the scenes. Colleagues describe Rutherford as reserved, level-headed and animated more by the inner workings of government than by politics.
Rutherford once called himself as an "operations person" who enjoys "making the trains run on time."
"He has a keen understanding of how the processes of government work," said Michael S. Steele, who was lieutenant governor under Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and who worked with Rutherford during that time.
"He has a keen understanding of the difference between what government should do and what it does do," Steele said.
The Maryland Constitution is clear on the transfer of power in the governor's office, even in temporary circumstances. If Hogan is unable to serve his full term, Rutherford would become governor for the rest of it.
If the governor is temporarily unable to perform his duties, the lieutenant governor would become acting governor "when notified in writing by the governor" or if the governor is "disabled" and "unable to communicate."
As part of his initial treatment, Hogan said Monday that he was "put to sleep" for a medical procedure. During that time, Rutherford was "ready and prepared to sign documents and make decisions," Hogan said, adding, "Luckily there was no major decision during that one hour."
A spokeswoman later confirmed that Rutherford was made acting governor during that period, a process that involved Hogan signing a letter.
It was not immediately clear whether that was the only instance in which Hogan had temporary transferred power to Rutherford.
At his announcement Monday, Hogan addressed difficult questions about succession with characteristic humor.
"If I died, I would say he probably is going to take over," Hogan quipped.
"It's hard to foresee unless I'm completely incapacitated and unconscious and unable to make decisions," he added. "I don't foresee that happening."
After attending Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington — he was a fellow student of Steele's — Rutherford graduated from Howard University and then earned master's and law degrees at the University of Southern California.
He was an associate administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration in the George W. Bush administration and later served as an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ehrlich tapped Rutherford to be secretary of the state Department of General Services, where he served from 2003 to 2006. He went on to work as chief administrative officer of the Republican National Committee.
A Washington native, he was an attorney at Benton Potter & Murdock when Hogan asked him to join his gubernatorial ticket last year.
"He is very good at making government work," said Rep. Andy Harris, the state's only Republican in Congress. "I don't view him as being interested in politics so much as someone who wants the ultimate result of politics, which is a government system that works."
Even before his diagnosis, Hogan had turned to Rutherford on several high-profile issues. Earlier this year, he placed his lieutenant in charge of addressing the state's rise in heroin overdoses. Rutherford also played an expanded role in working with the Baltimore City in the aftermath of the April riots.
During last year's campaign, both Hogan and Rutherford outlined an expansive role for the lieutenant governor, saying he would function as chief operating officer to Hogan's chief executive role. According to their plan, Cabinet secretaries would report to the governor through the lieutenant governor rather than through deputy chiefs of staff.
The state went without the position of lieutenant governor for decades, but it was re-established in 1970 shortly after then-Gov. Spiro Agnew left midterm to become Richard Nixon's vice president.
The transfer of power to a lieutenant governor is not without precedent in Maryland. Blair Lee III served as acting governor from August 1977 until early 1979 as then-Gov. Marvin Mandel was on trial on corruption charges. Mandel said at the time he was stepping down to recover from a minor stroke.
"We couldn't be in better backup hands," Diana Waterman, the chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, said of Rutherford. "Boyd is extremely well qualified to do whatever the governor needs him to do."