Behind a set of twin glass doors on the second floor of the State House, behind a gold-painted sign that reads "Ejner J. Johnson, Staff Director," there is a brown twill couch where the favor seekers sit.
Bureaucrats sit there waiting to let Johnson know they need more money for an assistant or a pay raise or a state car. Legislators sit there waiting to see if Gov. Harry Hughes will support their bills. Job seekers park themselves there hoping to improve their chances of getting a state paycheck.
In the six months since the 47-year-old reporter-turned-politician-turned-bureaucrat forsook a cabinent job to join the governor's inner circle, he has emerged from the pinstriped anonymity of that world to become virtually a surrogate governor, second in influence only to Hughes.
He did it by doing what no Hughes aide had really done before: he took charge. Within weeks of his arrival, the desultory and decentralized management of the governor's staff had been largely supplanted by an almost corporate hierarchy, with Johnson at its apex.
"He filled the void. He had the competence, the smarts, the personality to pull it off," observed Lt. Gov. Samuel W. Bogley, who has long been a gentle cipher in the administration, shut out of most decisions.
"We didn't have a good administrative capability. We were just friends helping friends . . . We were hearing all sorts of complaints -- phone calls that weren't returned, problems that weren't solved," Bogley added. "A lot of people downstairs [in the legislature] felt left out."
By New Year's, Johnson had neutralized his rivals on the gubernatorial staff and taken over the final construction of the Maryland budget -- the state's key policy document -- relieving Hughes of some of the burdensome details of this work.
When the session began, Johnson had moved into the office of Secretary of State Fred Wineland, distributed his own subordinates in a maze of near rectangular partitions, and was ready to go out and mingle in the legislative bazaar, to reason, to cajole, to charm, to help out, to haggle.
"He could sell snow tires in Miami. He's great," said Timothy Maloney, a young Prince George's Democrat who practices Maryland's traditional brand of favor-trading politics.
"When he comes down to testify on a bill," Moloney added, "he instills a sense of confidence, of ability. His hair is slicked back, his glasses are down on the end of his nose, he sounds like he knows what he's doing."
He also knows what legislators are doing, and makes it a point to seek out their opinions and be solicitous of their needs.
"What you need down here is knowledge," said Johnson, who spent most of a recent interview standing, half-leaning on the litter of budget books on his desk. "That's what helps, knowledge of people's problems, knowledge of the budget.
"It makes me more intelligent in dealing with certain issues and relieves the governor of the burden," he added, looking a little wearily back over four months' worth of evenings spent with his head in state pamphlets.
It was Johnson, along with his sidekick and alter-ego, legislative liaison John F. X. O'Brien, who carried the message to Hughes that the legislature was in no mood to enact a gasoline tax increase to fund a $90 million transportation aid package. Not at a time when the state's surplus was growing from $200 to $300 million.
The gasoline tax was never proposed. In its place, Hughes asked for an increase in car registration fees, which still left lawmakers grumbling. When Johnson heard from Budget Director Thomas Schmidt that revenues were increasing even faster than expected, he pulled Hughes briefly away from the festivities of the National Governor's Conference to let him know that now the registration fee, too, could be jettisoned. It was.
"He's a messenger for us," said Del. Frank C. Robey, a Baltimore Democrat. "He carries our messages back to the governor, and the message is heard." Added Maloney: "He's a full service bureau. If I have a problem, I call him up and it gets taken care of. And he does that for all 188 of us."
But the man everyone calls Johnny Johnson also keeps a ledger. Nothing in Annapolis is truly free, although the prevailing courtesy and deference in the Brooklyn timbres of Johnson's voice might let you think so.
When delegates and senators from Western Maryland wanted to talk about getting funds to renovate the dilapidated Maryland Theater in Hagerstown, $75,000 for this job turned up in one of Hughes' supplemental budgets -- a budget Johnson nursed into being.
When it came time to seek the support of some of those lawmakers on a $22 million bond bill to renovate Memorial Stadium and help persuade the Baltimore Colts to stay in town, Johnson's colleague, the blond Irishman O'Brien, reminded them of that help -- in jest, of course.
"He told me, 'We got your $75,000,'" recalled Washington County's Sen. Victor Cushwa. "So we need your help."
"We're just using a straightforward approach on Memorial Stadium in terms of presenting the facts," O'Brien said. "Memorial Stadium stands on its own merits -- the bill would be an economic plus for the whole state."
When a legislator makes a request, "our response is to see if it's reasonable. If it is possible, it may be done. If it's impossible or too costly, it won't be done," O'Brien said.
And when a legislator seems hostile, Johnny Johnson is willing to respond in kind.
"Johnny Johnson's gotten us back in the game, the Annapolis game," say Sam Bogley. "He's willing to go down and discuss matters on their terms. We weren't doing that before."
Over the years, Johnson had ample opportunities to learn how the game was played. He first met Hughes while covering the legislative session for the old Baltimore News-Post in 1958, when Hughes was a new delegate from Caroline County, the only Eastern Shore county without any shore.
Later, Johnson went to work as a speechwriter in the campaign of the late Gov. J. Millard Tawes, then after the election, took over as a young gubernatorial aide. When Tawes retired in 1966 and Spiro T. Agnew took over, a home was found for Johnson as deputy commissioner of Motor Vehicles. o
He was commissioner of the agency when Hughes was appointed by Gov. Marvin Mandel to head the new state transportation department. A competent, efficient bureaucrat, he had also developed the knack of surviving in the fierce crosscurrents of Maryland politics.
When Hughes ran for governor, a seemingly quixotic quest, Johnson's wife went to work on his campaign. But there were whispers in other political camps, like that of former acting Gov. Blair Lee III, that Johnson himself was hedging his bets.
Hughes won. By the time the state's political establishment had caught its breath, he had appointed his cabinet, and Johnson had been named secretary of Licensing and Regulation, a job which had left its previous occupants with only titular power over the leaders of such independent fiefdoms as the banking and insurance commissions.
By the time Johnson had been there six months, most of these commissions were not independent, at least not of him. He was the boss in name as well as in fact, although his attempts to oust Insurance Commissioner Edward Birrane, his most stubborn adversary, were unsuccessful.
"He can be very charming," said one Hughes aide. "But he's a street fighter. When you go at it with him, you'd better be ready to take your gloves off and bloody your knuckles."
His reputation for toughness is a considerable weapon in state government, but Johnson also uses his easy-going charm and his encyclopedic capacity to retain and transmit information to good effect with all his constituencies: Legislators, bureaucrats and the press.
But in one setting, the governor's 8:30 a.m. meeting with his staff, Johnson does not dominate. Hughes pays at least as much attention to the thoughts of Judson P. Garrett, his slow-talking, methodical legal counsel, who shares with Johnson the job of testifying for administration bills.
Budget and Fiscal Planning Secretary Thomas Schmidt also wields considerable influences with Hughes, sharing as he does the governor's fascination and facility with numbers and formulas.
It was Schmidt, with his conservative financial analyst's background, who spoke up against a commission-recommended increase in welfare grants and helped hold the original proposed increase down to 11 percent.
It was Garrett, the former seminary student, who helped persuade Hughes to rein in Corrections Secretary Gordon Kamka, whose absolute "no new prisons" stance and abrasiveness had left the administration in an unwelcome confrontation with the legislature.
But somehow, whenever decisions were made to defuse the confrontations, to use the budget surplus to meet the needs of disgruntled lawmakers, Johnson was always around. "He's ubiquitous" said one legislative aide. "He has his hand in everything."
"The governor's willing to listen to everybody -- that's one of his talents.
But Johnny spends more time with the governor than anyone else on the staff," said Bogley. "He has the governor's ear," is the way Del. Robey puts it.
Now, in the after-hours bars where legislators gather in search of relaxation, scotch and scuttlebutt, they tell stories about the power, the influence, and the political dexterity of the man they call "Governor Johnson." With each story, true or false, Johnson's influence grows.
An increasing number of legislators and political observers think that, in time, Johnson wants to take over the job of Sam Bogley or that of Hughes himself.
"I would guess that I'm ambitious," said Johnson, who sometimes jokes with reporters about his efforts to keep a low profile. "I'm ambitious to do a goog job . . . to try to ease the decision-making problems for the governor," so he can devote his time and attention to other problems, the more important ones."
But there is another story that speaks less of Johnson's role as a loyal aide and more of his joy in command. Walking from his office last fall, the soon-to-be-staff director ran into an old State House office hand, who had been around when Tawes was governor and Johnson a political whippersnapper.
Greeting her with a big, friendly smile, he envoked Tawes' memory, saying as he walked off, "I wish the old man could see me now."