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.
Having grown up in a family of Democrats, he did not become a registered Republican until after graduation. DiPaula said the switch was inspired by President Ronald Reagan's fiscal conservatism and advocacy of pushing government decisions down to the local level.
Despite serving a governor who ran as a moderate in 2002, DiPaula has not shied away from his admiration for Reagan, which has left him open to charges that he tries to push Ehrlich right on some policy issues.
Miller last year derisively referred to him as "a Ronald Reagan incarnate in a little teeny body," a reference to DiPaula's physical stature. The bespectacled DiPaula good-naturedly asked Miller to sign a copy of the newspaper in which his quote appeared.
DiPaula spent nearly his first decade out of college working for a real estate development company, designing and later managing a large retirement community. It was there that he got to know Ehrlich, then a state delegate whose district included the company's headquarters.
Their bond was cemented in 1994, when DiPaula made an unsuccessful run for the House of Delegates and Ehrlich first won a seat in Congress. Ehrlich took the unusual step of endorsing DiPaula in a crowded GOP primary. DiPaula finished second.
"When he campaigned door-to-door in my district, he invited me to go with him, and he handed out my literature," DiPaula recalled. "That, to me, defines Bob Ehrlich: sticking by his friends. Quite frankly, it was one of my major motivators to come back and help him in his  campaign."
In the eight years in between, DiPaula's stock rose within GOP circles. In 1996, he served as assistant manager of the Republican National Convention in San Diego. Four years later, he was given the top management job for the 2000 convention in Philadelphia at which Bush was nominated.
In late 2001, Kendel Ehrlich called, inviting DiPaula to come to the Ehrlichs' home to discuss over homemade lasagna her husband's prospects for winning the governorship in the heavily Democratic state.
"I told him that night, it was about a 40-60 chance," DiPaula said. "But I knew he could do it. I knew if he ran a solid campaign, he could do it. It was just intuition."
After he came on board in early 2002, some members of DiPaula's skeletal staff initially were surprised to find their leader wearing rubber gloves and cleaning the office bathroom with a toilet scrubber. Committed to running a lean operation, DiPaula decided to share chores rather than hire a janitorial service.
Another staff member brought in the base of a water cooler, but DiPaula decided not to spend campaign money on jugs of water, so it sat empty.
Helped by the missteps of the Democratic nominee, Ehrlich prevailed, prompting a congratulatory call from Bush placed to DiPaula's cell phone.
Largely because of his political background, DiPaula was greeted skeptically by Democratic lawmakers who sit on the General Assembly's budget committees.
The same legislators, although certainly not in agreement with all that DiPaula advocates, say they have come to respect his hard work, responsiveness and now-intimate knowledge of the state's $26 billion budget.
Still, there are times when his political roots show, said Sen. P.J. Hogan (D-Montgomery), vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
As an example, Hogan offered legislators' dispute with the administration over whether it must fund offices that help enforce wage laws. It is difficult to know whether DiPaula resisted the legislators' position on its merits or because of political considerations involving labor unions, Hogan said.
Because of his close relationship with Ehrlich, DiPaula's duties extended well beyond those of past budget secretaries.
During the last legislative session, he was the administration's most visible lobbyist for the legalization of slot machine gambling, and he got involved in the controversial debate over state funding of embryonic stem cell research.
DiPaula also was among a handful of aides who regularly joined the governor in a series of meetings at the mansion with lawmakers.
Because of that, some legislators suggested last week that the biggest change associated with DiPaula's new job might be merely the location of his office.
"I talked to him probably every day during the session . . . to have someone to yell at or to ask for a change in something," Miller said. "He was the chief of staff the past few years, except for the name."