Reed S. Cordish, a partner at the Cordish Companies,will serve as an assistant to the president. (Baltimore Sun video)
WASHINGTON — As a partner in one of Baltimore's best-known development firms, Reed S. Cordish spent decades watching how the federal government assessed the environmental impact of the projects his company was building.
The process, he concluded, is "all but broken."
Now an assistant to President Donald Trump, Cordish has a powerful ally in the effort to speed those reviews. The White House says refining the process is central to Trump's promise to rebuild the nation's roads, bridges and airports.
It's one small piece of a vast, fix-the-government portfolio the 42-year-old Cordish has taken on since leaving the Cordish Cos. to run what some have described as a think tank within the White House.
Cordish, who joined the Republican administration in January as assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives, reports to Jared Kushner, a longtime friend, the president's son-in-law and an ascendant figure inside a turbulent White House.
His group, mostly unnoticed amid the blaring controversies over Russia and stalled executive orders, is quietly working on everything from how to boost U.S. manufacturing to modernizing decades-old IT systems at the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies.
"We're not approaching this from an ideological slant. We're approaching this in terms of what's good for American business and what's good for the American worker," Cordish said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. "Everybody supports government running better. Everybody supports bringing back industries and jobs to America."
While that may be true, past efforts to reimagine the federal bureaucracy are a reminder of the challenges involved, and the potential for acrimony.
Republican President Ronald Reagan's Grace Commission recommended efficiency measures aimed at cutting billions of dollars in spending. The proposals were ultimately ignored by Congress.
Democratic President Bill Clinton's "Reinventing Government" initiative, headed by Vice President Al Gore, enjoyed early success in reducing the size of the federal workforce and overhauling government procurement. But the Clinton administration also struggled to advance many of its ideas on Capitol Hill.
Democrats have expressed skepticism about this latest endeavor. But they haven't wholly written it off.
Members of both parties have complained for years about some of the same issues the group is working to address.
"While we have yet to see whether this will be a good-faith effort to make government work better and not just another ploy to dismantle government agencies, it speaks to the potential for cooperation between Congress and the administration," said Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland.
Cordish, a Baltimore native, is the son of the politically connected developer David S. Cordish, the CEO and chairman of the Cordish Cos. The firm owns the Power Plant Live entertainment venue in Baltimore and Maryland Live casino in Hanover, and is building a 17-story hotel next to the casino.
Reed Cordish, a Republican, is the latest in a family line to take a role in government. David Cordish worked for the Carter and Reagan administrations, overseeing an urban development program widely credited with helping to finance the building of the Inner Harbor. His grandfather, Paul Cordish, was elected to the House of Delegates as a Democrat in 1934 — and became the leader of the chamber's liberal bloc.
Reed Cordish has been a force in the family business for years, expanding its mission from real estate development to restaurants, casinos and entertainment. He created and built an arm of the company that now employs more than 15,000 people nationwide.
Financial disclosure reports released by the White House recently pegged Cordish as among the most wealthy members of the president's inner circle, with assets of at least $197 million — and potentially far more. The reports require officials to disclose the value of assets in broad ranges, making it impossible to assess their true worth.
Cordish, who reported an income of at least $48 million in 2016, liquidated a significant share of equities as he joined the federal government. He has retained stakes in companies that own restaurants, real estate and shopping centers.
Cordish maintains a home in Baltimore but is living mostly in Washington these days, given the demands of the new job.
He isn't taking a salary for his work in the administration.
The Cordish family has used its wealth to support both Democratic and Republican politicians. David Cordish hosted both Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joe Biden at his home for fundraisers. But the Cordishes have for years had a personal connection with Trump, a onetime competitor in real estate.
In fact, Trump and David Cordish met in a courtroom.
"I sued David, for hundreds of millions of dollars," Trump said at a Maryland Republican Party dinner in 2015, a time when few in the party's establishment took him seriously as a presidential candidate. "I didn't know him but I just said 'I'm going to get this guy, whoever the hell he is.'
"The court ordered us to meet, and it was mandatory. I said, 'I don't want to meet this guy,'" Trump said. "I walked in and I fell in love in about two minutes. We worked out our problems in, what, 12 seconds?"
Jared Kushner, the son-in-law and top adviser to President Donald J. Trump, will refrain from any policy making related to federal rental assistance for low-income tenants because his real estate firm's Baltimore-area properties receive income from the U.S. housing department's voucher program, a White House official told The Baltimore Sun.
It was Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and now an assistant at the White House, who set Reed Cordish up with her best friend. The two married in 2010 and now have two children.
Cordish graduated from Gilman School and studied English at Princeton. He played tennis in college and professionally after graduation.
Brook Hazelton, president of auction house Christie's Americas, played with Cordish at Princeton and remains a friend. He spoke of Cordish's decision to trade in a leading role at a prosperous company for an office in the West Wing.
"I wasn't expecting it, but on reflection it doesn't strike me as a surprise," Hazelton said. "What I saw in Reed was a desire to work very hard to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles."
Hazelton said Cordish had a reputation on the tennis team for calling the lines fairly.
"A quality that you learn in sports is someone's sense of honesty and fair play and sportsmanship," Hazelton said. "Those are all standout qualities that Reed possesses."
Defining the scope of Cordish's work is not easy, because it's expansive and in its early stages. It remains unclear how much change the White House can bring to bear on the federal government on its own, and how much will require consent from a polarized Congress.
Cordish said the group is interested in workforce development and trying to ensure there are enough workers ready to take the new manufacturing jobs Trump often promises to return to the United States. That effort could involve consolidating training programs scattered across different federal agencies.
The office is also focused on the $1 trillion infrastructure plan Trump touted without much detail during the campaign. The president has expressed a desire to help pay for at least some of those projects through public-private partnerships — the kind of deal the Cordish family has been executing for decades.
Developers — but also elected officials, including President Barack Obama — have criticized the pace of federal environmental reviews of major developments, which a 2014 Government Accountability Office study found took about five years on average. Cordish said he is looking for ways to ensure the current process doesn't slow down the administration's ambitions on infrastructure. Other countries, including Australia and Canada, have shortened reviews while maintaining environmental protections, he said.
Environmentalists say Congress already approved significant changes to streamline reviews as part of a major transportation bill in 2015. They also argue that maintaining the process is important to give the public an opportunity to weigh in on major developments that can affect communities.
"Newcomers to D.C. should really take the time to read current law — or at least the summaries — because this is not a new issue," said Deron Lovaas, a senior policy adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Everyone who comes to D.C. has either a willful or an unthinking amnesia about what's been done before.
"Every one of these statutes is in place to address real national concerns."
Observers who have been involved with past government overhaul initiatives said they are optimistic about this latest attempt. But they also said they are eager to see specifics.
"They're going to get ideas percolating out of there that nobody else has ever really thought about," said Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, a group that advocates for career federal managers. "Like any other think tank, they're going to be experimenting. They're going to look for targets of opportunity."
William D. Eggers, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights, has written extensively on government.
He said the private sector has ideas to offer government and said the administration could realistically implement those changes while also cutting the size of the federal bureaucracy.
The Trump White House has proposed cutting billions from the federal budget, and has ordered individual departments to develop plans to implement those reductions.
"The fact of the matter is that it's oftentimes periods of very tight finances that force you to really look at your department and look at your agencies in a new way," Eggers said. "It forces hard thinking."
Cordish said he's confident the effort will yield results, in part because it has the president's attention.
"He asks about these initiatives all the time. He cares deeply about them," he said. "Some of these initiatives are not ones that are politically easy. When you fix IT, you don't necessarily get credit for it. But he wants to improve government."