Laslo Boyd: Nancy Kopp: A Maryland Treasure

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By Laslo Boyd

Almost without notice, and certainly with much less fanfare than Barbara Mikulski’s retirement announcement, Nancy Kopp is now in her 40th year serving the State of Maryland.  Kopp was first elected as a Delegate from Montgomery County in 1974. She held that position until 2002, when she was selected by the General Assembly to be the State Treasurer.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone in Annapolis who is smarter, more thoughtful, and more dedicated than Kopp.  In any conversation with her, it’s abundantly clear that she cares deeply about public policy and making government work for the public interest.  She speaks of the “honor” of having served in the House of Delegates as well as the “honor” of having been chosen by members of the General Assembly to serve as Treasurer.  Coming from her, those words ring absolutely true without a hint of cynicism.

When I asked her about the major differences in the legislature from when she was first elected, Kopp began by noting that in the 1970s there were only a half dozen or so woman and today that number is closer to 50.   Underscoring what a long way we’ve come is that Kopp was the first woman ever to give birth to a child while serving in a legislature.  You can still see a newspaper clipping on her office wall about the big event.  Throughout her career, Kopp has been both an inspiration and a mentor to women seeking public office.

Technology has had a large impact on the way that business is done.  Kopp noted that legislators generally got no more than a handful of letters on any issue and today it’s common to get hundreds of emails.  The ability to have constant conversations with constituents is a plus in her view.  What has been lost on the other hand are the informal connections and conversations that characterized the Annapolis of that earlier era.

Kopp’s reflections on her legislative career highlighted a number of the outstanding leaders with whom she served.  Her list included Ben Cardin, Pete Rawlings, Helen Koss and Donald Robertson.  All of them, without doubt, would have included her on the same list.   Kopp talked about the satisfaction of working with bright, dedicated legislators to deal with important issues.

She also cited William Donald Schaefer as one of the greatest governors that Maryland has ever had.  The Schaefer connection is one we share.  I got to know and work with Kopp in the late 1980s on legislation that Governor Schaefer introduced to reorganize public higher education in Maryland.  My first hand experience with Kopp, who then chaired the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Education, has made me a huge fan ever since.

In 2002, after 27 years in the House of Delegates, Kopp was elected State Treasurer by the General Assembly.  Maryland is one of only a handful of states that picks the treasurer by that system.  Kopp views it as a way to ensure that the legislature’s voice is represented in key state decisions than involve implementation of policy.

The job of the state treasurer was a part time one for most of its history, but as Kopp told me, the General Assembly has added more and more tasks to the office.  The main functions of the Treasurer include investing state funds, overseeing the state debt, managing state banking relationships and representing the State with bond rating agencies.   The other full time requirements involve serving on numerous boards and commissions, the most visible by far being the State’s Board of Public Works.

In making the transition to her new role, Kopp took on management as well as policy responsibilities.  It’s clear that one of the appeals of being Treasurer has been the opportunity to learn about new areas of state government as well as have a vantage point for seeing what goes on all over Maryland. 

Fortunately, Kopp is a quick study and a hard worker.  The challenges of the position changed dramatically in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown.  Maryland has come through that crisis with its AAA bond rating intact and its reputation for strong financial management secure.

For the general public as well as for political insiders, the part of her job that gets the most attention is being on the Board of Public Works along with the Governor and the Comptroller.  Over the years, that forum has seen its share of political grandstanding by one or more of its members even as they exercise significant authority over state contracting and procurement.

Her seat on that board has given her a vantage point for some of the most intriguing and sometime entertaining political drama in Annapolis.  She has shared the stage with four governors and two comptrollers.  Kopp has been a consistent though relatively low-key participant in a shifting cast of characters who have not always played well together.

In a state that has had its share of larger than life political figures and numerous long time incumbents in its highest profile positions, Nancy Kopp still stands out as an exemplar of what it means to be a public servant. 

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.