Bill Ratchford, widely admired power of Md. budget-writing and lawmaking, dies at 90
An unsung hero of Maryland budget-writing and lawmaking has died.
William S. Ratchford II — “Ratch,” to those who knew and loved him — was a behind-the-scenes powerhouse in the State House for almost three decades, then, after officially retiring, served as an adviser to five Baltimore mayors. He influenced dozens of powerful politicians and served as a mentor to many of today’s top-flight fiscal gurus and policy experts in Maryland.
Ratchford, the director of the General Assembly’s old Department of Fiscal Services, died Sunday in hospice care at his home in Annapolis Sunday after a lengthy illness. He was 90.
As head of the legislature’s fiscal office for 22 years, Ratchford was the top budget adviser for an array of policymakers, helping to guide the state through the recession of the 1970’s, the savings and loan crisis of the 1980’s, and countless other challenges. His demeanor was quiet and unassuming — he was viewed by lawmakers as an honest broker and nonpartisan — and yet he was a forceful advocate for fiscal prudence and probity who recognized that everything that happened in Annapolis was driven by politics.
“Bill Ratchford was the fiscal conscience of the General Assembly,” said state Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City), one of the few current legislators whose tenure overlapped with Ratchford’s.
Although Ratchford eschewed the spotlight, he would occasionally draw the ire of governors — especially the late William Donald Schaefer (D) — when they thought he was blocking their priorities or illuminating embarrassing problems in government when Ratchford’s office released audits of state agencies.
Schaefer “thinks Ratchford is a pawn carrying out the political objectives of a small cadre of legislative leaders,” a top aide to the governor told The Washington Post in 1989. “He’s masking covert political actions with his publicly stated goal of independent audits and budget cutting.”
Ratchford tended to shrug off the criticism, said Barry Rascovar, the former political columnist and deputy editorial page editor at the Baltimore Sun, who met the budget analyst when he first started covering the legislature in the early 1970’s.
“Schaefer would be irritated by anything Schaefer didn’t like,” Rascovar said. “Ratchford always had a smile on his face. He always tried to make light of a situation if he could.”
Schaefer’s successor, former Gov. Parris Glendening (D), said he didn’t recall having problems with Ratchford but was well aware that his initiatives needed to win Ratchford’s approval if they were to have a chance of getting through the General Assembly.
“He was extraordinarily well-respected by the legislature,” Glendening said. “Even before I was really in there [as governor], I came to realize that if you wanted to do something — the budget games, the money — you really had to have his sign-off.”
Glendening called Ratchford “a caretaker of the public’s money, without ideology.”
After serving in the Air Force, Ratchford worked as a graduate assistant at the University of Maryland’s Bureau of Governmental Research. In 1961, he was hired by the Maryland Association of Counties as acting executive secretary (the equivalent of today’s executive director position), a job he held for 11 months. He then went on to work with the Municipal Technical Advisory Service of the University of Maryland’s Bureau of Governmental Research while earning a master’s degree in political science at the university. He returned to MACo as permanent executive secretary in January 1964.
In that role, “Bill was more interested in building the organization than in active public policy advocacy,” MACo said in a written tribute this week, recalling a phrase he liked to use: “I’m not a salesman; I couldn’t sell snow shovels to Eskimos.” But, MACo wrote, “his commitment to the counties and his focus on keeping them unified developed the role of Executive Secretary from one of a helper to one of a leader among county officials.”
In 1968, Ratchford became a deputy at the legislature’s Department of Fiscal Services, and took over the agency in 1974.
“Ratch was the go-to guy for several generations of legislators on budget and tax measures as well as interpreting how proposed bills would operate in the real world,” Rascovar recalled. “His encyclopedic knowledge of the budget and legislative language allowed him to be a non-partisan source of information for Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. He was the ultimate answer man.”
Ratchford was especially valuable to lawmakers and reporters, Rascovar said, when the legislature was wrestling with a bill that then-Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) was pushing in 1972 to reform the horse racing industry.
“He helped every reporter who was trying to figure out what the heck was going on there,” Rascovar said. “Every day there was a different twist and turn as the Mandel people tried to turn a simple racing bill into a bonanza for Mandel’s friends — and they almost succeeded.” (Mandel wound up doing some prison time as a result, though his conviction was overturned years later.)
As a budget analyst, Ratchford was cautious but flexible. While he may not have invented the term “out years” when looking ahead to future fiscal estimates, he popularized it in Annapolis, and frequently warned lawmakers about deficit forecasts. But he also recognized political imperatives and tried to help legislative leaders achieve their goals.
“My favorite Ratch saying: ‘That’s something we don’t do, except when we do,'” Rosenberg said.
‘The gentle leader’
People who worked for Ratchford in Annapolis describe him as an encouraging and compassionate boss who they wanted to please.
“He was just the gentle leader who inspired others by his actions,” said Barbara Klein, who was his deputy at the Department of Fiscal Services and went on to become a lobbyist for the University of Maryland. “He was known for his integrity, his dedication, his fiscal abilities and his caring.”
Melanie Wenger, who was hired as a budget analyst by Ratchford in 1988, went on to become chief of staff to the late Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) and is now director of Montgomery County’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, said Ratchford knew how to get the most out of his underlings without overtly pushing them much.
“People worked very hard and had a commitment to high-quality work,” she said. “And that was all him.”
Klein said she was always amazed at how poker-faced Ratchford could be during tense moments and emotional policy debates.
“We were always trained by him to give the same information to everyone,” she said. “Did he have an opinion? I’m sure he had an opinion. But he was dedicated to giving objective opinions. And Bill was just the kind of person who listened to everybody.”
The list of Maryland policy leaders that Ratchford mentored at the Department of Fiscal Services is long and impressive — and Wenger said he promoted women at a time when it wasn’t that common. Ratchford’s proteges include two future Budget secretaries, T. Eloise Foster and Fred Puddester; Richard Madaleno, a former legislator and candidate for governor who is now chief administrative officer in Montgomery County; Beverley Swaim-Staley, the first woman to serve as Transportation secretary in Maryland; Anne Ferro, who headed the Motor Vehicles Administration, became a top U.S. Department of Transportation official during the Obama administration, and is now president & CEO of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators; Michael Johansen, a top-earning State House lobbyist; Warren Descheneaux, the former executive director of the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services; and Michael Sanderson, the MACo executive director.
Wenger recalled a favorite saying of Ratchford’s that he’d bring out at staff parties, which almost seemed to match his fiscal outlook: “One martini is not enough and two is too much.”
Ratchford announced his retirement from the General Assembly in 1996, but was persuaded to stay on for another year by Miller and then-House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D) — who died on Monday — in part to help reorganize the legislature’s central staff. Today, the fiscal and policy shops of the legislature are under the aegis of the Department of Legislative Services.
Once Ratchford finally did retire from the state, he became a consultant to then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D), helping officials in the city where he grew up analyze state budgets and consider how various pieces of legislation in Annapolis might impact city programs and residents. He wound up working for the next four mayors — Martin O’Malley (D), Sheila Dixon (D), Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) and Catherine Pugh (D) — before leaving city service in 2017. Ratchford had worked closely with Rawlings-Blake’s father, the late House Appropriations Committee Chair Howard “Pete” Rawlings (D) in Annapolis.
As Ratchford’s health declined in the final months of his life and he went into hospice care, several friends, former colleagues and elected officials regularly checked in, including O’Malley and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D), who served as speaker of the House in Annapolis from 1979 to 1987.
Ratchford is survived by his wife of 65 years, Nancy Ratchford, daughters Linda Hesford of Annapolis and Wendy Rhoe of Chester, and three grandsons, Timothy and Michael Hesford and Collins Rhoe.
A celebration of life will be planned at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that memorial contributions be sent to the Maryland School for the Blind in his memory — a nod to another interesting aspect of Ratchford’s history. Not only did his wife teach at the Baltimore school for many years, but his father was the school superintendent from 1939 to 1969, and Ratchford spent part of his childhood living on the campus.
“He’s always been a big supporter of the school,” said W. Robert Hair, the current superintendent and CEO.