Howard 'Pete' Rawlings dies at 66
Longtime delegate rose from humble beginnings to become one of state's most influential politicians; 'A tremendous leader'; Baltimore native had been battling cancer since '99
By Sarah Koenig and David Nitkin
November 14, 2003, 11:00 AM EST
Howard Peters "Pete" Rawlings, a child of Baltimore public housing who rose to become one of the most powerful political leaders in Maryland, died today at the University of Maryland Medical Center. He was 66, and had been battling cancer since 1999.
Mr. Rawlings spent a quarter-century representing the city in the General Assembly. With the mind of a trained mathematician and the fearlessness of a man certain of his convictions, he used his position as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee to bring change to his hometown and the state. Almost always, he bested adversaries who dared stand in his way.
He was an advocate for affordable housing, orchestrated the restructuring of the city school system and doggedly pushed for the legalization of slot machines as a way to pay for public education.
Along the way, his blessing became a valued commodity for aspiring politicians, making him something of a kingmaker in an era when machine politics was on the wane.
In 1999, he surprised many by withdrawing his backing from an African-American candidate and instead endorsed Martin O'Malley for mayor -- a move that immeasurably bolstered the then-councilman's chances. In 2002, Mr. Rawlings guided Lisa A. Gladden's successful run for state Senate against incumbent Barbara A. Hoffman, a longtime colleague of his and a fellow fiscal leader.
Despite many operations and treatments for his illness, which spread from his bladder to other parts of his body, Mr. Rawlings remained a vital player in Annapolis until his death. Although he missed a key budget debate this year, his position as chairman placed him at the center of the session's vexing financial issues.
"Rawlings taught me an awful lot. When folks criticized my appointment, it was chairman Rawlings who said the first kind words. He was there to fix things. He was a master, a tremendous leader for the state and the city," said James "Chip" Dipaula Jr., Maryland's budget secretary.
A math professor, Mr. Rawlings ended his academic career as assistant to the president of Baltimore City Community College. Even before he entered politics, he was an activist for civil rights, higher education and services for the poor.
Soon after his election to the House of Delegates in 1978, he became known as one of the few people in the 188-member General Assembly who actually understood the nuances of Maryland's finances. In 1992, he was named Appropriations Committee chairman, a role that gave him substantial influence on the budget, and therefore on state policy.
Mr. Rawlings could, and did, direct money to projects in Baltimore important to him and to his constituents. Likewise, he was known to unabashedly withhold funds from pet projects of legislators set on blocking bills he favored.
A prime example was a painful debate in 1997 over the reorganization of the city's public schools. "If this bill goes down, all their school construction money is coming out of the budget," he said of his opponents. "They won't get anything. Not a dime."
A tall man of large girth, Mr. Rawlings made good use of his presence. He spoke slowly, his voice a rumble that emanated from deep within. The effect was such that when he rose on the House floor, everyone knew he meant business. Even as his body was weakening, his blunt rhetoric never did.
He once said of then-City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, "He's a child. He behaves like a child. He thinks like a child."
Friends said the flip side of such withering criticism was a soft-hearted man, devoted to his family, and with a fine sense of humor.
"He had a lovely smile. He would smile and his whole face would light up," said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who worked with Mr. Rawlings and sometimes clashed with him when Schaefer was Baltimore's mayor and Maryland's governor. "But when he was mad, you would know it. It was like a thunderstorm."
Casper R. Taylor Jr., House speaker for much of Mr. Rawlings' career and a close friend, said Mr. Rawlings never relented on an issue he believed in, even when it was unpopular among some in the African-American community.
In 2002, for instance, students from Morgan State University held demonstrations outside the State House and in the Appropriations Committee office, shouting that they wanted more money for the college library and chanting "Rawlings, stop stalling."
An alumnus after whom a dorm is named, Mr. Rawlings wouldn't budge on the matter because, he said, the school wasn't ready to spend the money. "His attitude was always that somebody in his community had to do this. And he did it," Mr. Taylor said. "His political courage certainly stands out in my mind."
Mr. Rawlings was born in Baltimore on March 17, 1937. His father, Howard Toussaint Rawlings, was a custodian at the old Hutzler's and Hochschild Kohn department stores, and later worked at the U.S. Post Office. He and his siblings grew up in public housing, in what was then the newly constructed Edgar Allan Poe homes on North Fremont Avenue.
He graduated from Douglass High School, and received a bachelor's degree from Morgan State and a master's in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin. He studied for his doctorate at the University of Maryland, but never completed it.
He and his wife, the former Nina Cole, had three children, Wendell Rawlings, Lisa Rawlings and Stephanie Rawlings Blake, a Baltimore city councilwoman.
"The loss of him as a committee chairman will be a serious loss to the state," said Mr. Schaefer, "but a much more serious loss to the city."
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.
Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.
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