Ehrlich's Closest Aide Now Has The Title

Chip DiPaula Jr., left, ran the successful gubernatorial campaign of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who in 1994 had endorsed DiPaula in his unsuccessful run for the House of Delegates.
Chip DiPaula Jr., left, ran the successful gubernatorial campaign of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who in 1994 had endorsed DiPaula in his unsuccessful run for the House of Delegates. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 20, 2005

When Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. decided to run for governor in 2002, he tapped Chip DiPaula Jr. to manage what seemed a long-shot endeavor. When he took office in 2003, Ehrlich (R) handed DiPaula arguably the administration's most difficult task: digging the state out of a gaping budget hole.

So no one in Annapolis was surprised last week when DiPaula made his debut in his latest high-stakes role: serving as the governor's chief of staff as Ehrlich tries to shore up a record on which to run for reelection in 2006.

In an administration that prizes loyalty, DiPaula long ago won a reputation as the governor's most valued and trusted aide. DiPaula, 43, is considered whip-smart and accessible around the clock and, as Ehrlich's budget secretary, somehow managed to ingratiate himself with many Democratic lawmakers opposed to the policies he peddled.

DiPaula's arrival last week in a State House office sent a clear signal, said Sen. Ulysses Currie.

"The campaign has started," said Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "Chip is now the chief of staff in title, but he's there to get the governor reelected."

DiPaula arrives at a time of increasingly frayed relations between the Republican executive branch and the Democrat-dominated legislature. Last week provided several new sources of tension likely to escalate as the election nears.

Democratic lawmakers launched an investigation into the Ehrlich administration's firing practices, drawing charges of a "witch hunt" from GOP critics. And legislative leaders accused Ehrlich of ignoring several directives they put in the state budget.

Until now, even some of the governor's harshest critics have expressed a begrudging respect for DiPaula, who is replacing Steven L. Kreseski, a longtime aide headed for a private lobbying career.

"DiPaula is clearly in a different universe than most of Ehrlich's staff in terms of talent and political skills," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery). "He's got an easy manner, not abrasive or confrontational like so many other folks in the governor's office. . . . That is something you can respect, but it's also something we should defend ourselves from. In the next election, he'd like to take off the heads of the legislators he's been schmoozing with."

Other lawmakers, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), have compared DiPaula to Karl Rove, the adviser to President Bush who has been described as "Bush's brain" and seems to have a hand in every politically sensitive step the administration takes.

DiPaula, who chooses his words carefully, called the comparison "flattering" but said it is not altogether accurate. While Rove advises and strategizes, DiPaula said he is focused on implementing the governor's agenda, allowing only that "strong governing is the best way to be reelected."

DiPaula's interest in both public service and budgetary issues traces to his days at Towson University, when he served as president of the student government and worked as a bookkeeper for several retail stores and a rock band.

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