If Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen has a political Achilles' heel in his bid for re-election, it can be found in Dundalk, a traditional Democratic bastion that has exploded in angry revolt this year against property taxes, the executive and his allies.
Two popular Dundalk Democrats, Del. Louis L. DePazzo and County Council nominee Donald Mason, are supporting Rasmussen's Republican opponent, Roger B. Hayden. When a Democrats for Hayden office opened Saturday in Dundalk, DePazzo, who led the district ticket in votes in the Sept. 11 primary, delivered a strong, pro-Hayden speech.
With voters in northern Baltimore County, Perry Hall-White Marsh and Catonsville-Arbutus also uneasy over property taxes and development pressures, Rasmussen could have a difficult contest Nov. 6 if the turnout remains as low as it did in the primary. Only 29 percent of the registered voters turned out last month.
If a campaign visit to Dundalk last weekend could be interpreted as shedding light on Rasmussen's campaign a month before Election Day, it wasn't a particularly bright one. The incumbent may indeed win re-election, but there exists a strong current of criticism for many of his decisions, both for spending too much money and for not spending enough.
Critics blast everything from the tax he enacted on beverage containers to the growth in property tax assessments to the shirts the executive wears -- they're monogrammed and too fancy, they say. Wags have dubbed him "Taxmussen," despite the fact that the property tax rate has gone up only 4 cents since he entered office in December 1986.
Ruth Schriver, 74, sat in the early morning sunshine outside the ++ Ateaze Senior Center Saturday, waiting for her daughter, a county employee, as Rasmussen approached a bustling flea market on Dundalk's Holabird Avenue.
"I don't like his attitude to his employees. They need a raise," Schriver said, referring to Rasmussen's action to delay a pay raise for county employees from July 1 until Jan. 1 to save $12 million.
The woman's daughter, who refused to give her name, was even more vehement. "I love to see politicians come out in their suits; I'd like to see them do a day's work," she said, as Rasmussen passed nearby in his standard pressed white dress shirt, red tie and gray slacks.
Rasmussen made the rounds of displays of used items, quietly greeting each of the vendors and some customers, buying a few children's books and a 45 rpm recording of John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural speech. Not typically one for historic rhetoric himself, Rasmussen made some small talk, but didn't discuss the campaign directly with the shoppers and vendors. He was accompanied by county Recreation and Parks Director Robert R. Staab, Deputy Director Charles L. Fisher Jr., and liquor board administrator Stanley Pianowski.
What Dundalk voters will do on Election Day remains to be seen.
Mason won handily in the primary, more than doubling the vote total of incumbent councilman Dale T. Volz. Although Mason is a Democrat, his supporters are closely associated with Republican executive candidate Hayden. DePazzo, not bashful in his criticism of Rasmussen despite running on the same party ticket, predicts a 2-1 victory for Hayden in Dundalk.
Everyone the executive greeted Saturday was polite, although some admitted later they don't plan to vote for him. Not everyone was critical of him either.
"Everybody thinks they'll get something for nothing," said Carl .. Reed, 65, of Eastwood, a vendor at the sale. "I'm retired and I've got to pay, too," he offered cheerfully, grumbling aloud about "this crazy 2 percent."
He was referring to the referendum question which will appear on the November ballot, offering voters the chance to limit county property tax revenue increases to 2 percent per year. Rasmussen and Hayden both oppose the proposal as too restrictive.
Helen Sudine, another senior citizen operating a booth inside the center, said she's a Rasmussen supporter, too. "He's doing all right. No one will do better," she said.
But others view Rasmussen as the epitome of government gone off-track, of an administration more interested in running like a well-heeled corporation than as a pothole fixer.
"He's used too much money to redecorate his office. There's too much property taxes," said Helen Spittle, 67. Her husband, Donald, 72, said he's petitioned the county three times in the past decade to have his Dundalk alley repaired -- without success.
"He's a high spender," said Angeline Witte, 71.
Said John Stone, 47, ominously: "I want to send a message."
Rasmussen stayed for about an hour Saturday morning, the campaign sticker on his shirt the only sign with his name in evidence. He left for another appointment in Catonsville, riding fTC down Holabird Avenue past a half dozen dark blue "Hayden for County Executive" signs on people's lawns.
No Rasmussen signs were to be seen.