Critics describe Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen as imperial. They call his renovated government offices the Taj Mahal. They carp about the way he dresses and the county car he drives.
Property tax protesters, maverick Democratic politicians and Republican candidates rarely miss a chance to take shots at Rasmussen's style.
And since the executive has decided to stay above the fray, his critics have gotten bolder, feeling he's afraid of them.
"The young man has no fire in his belly," says Democratic Del. Louis L. DePazzo of Dundalk.
DePazzo, who is running on his party's ticket for re-election, has joined with independent Democrat Donald Mason, a candidate for County Council, to back Republican Roger B. Hayden against Rasmussen.
Last week, Hayden and GOP legislative candidates harshly criticized Rasmussen at a meeting of the Rossville Democratic Club attended by about 230 members. Then DePazzo mocked the executive's absence from the gathering. Rasmussen's Democratic ticket mates, led by Councilman William R. Evans and state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell Jr. said nothing in his defense.
Rasmussen had a previously scheduled appearance that night.
The criticisms that have been repeated so often at public gatherings target:
* The county-owned, 1989 Lincoln Town Car and 4-wheel drive back-up vehicle Rasmussen uses.
* The team of two Baltimore County police officers who share duties as driver and bodyguard.
* The $12,000, or 16 percent, pay raise approved by the council for the county executive who takes office in December.
* Rasmussen's seeming reluctance to attend meetings of old-line political clubs; his alleged aloofness and in accessibility.
* His unfailingly formal dress highlighted by his monogrammed shirts.
* The $3 million to $4 million spent to remodel and renovate the top two floors of the old county courthouse in Towson, including the offices of the executive, the council, the Economic Development Commission and the Office of Law.
* The transformation of the east lawn of the old courthouse into a flower garden with underground sprinklers.
* The expansion of the two-person, $50,000-a-year county information office into a $650,000-a-year operation with 11 employees.
Mild-mannered, friendly but reserved, Rasmussen, 43, is clearly more comfortable in a behind-the-scenes role. He's an organizer, in sharp contrast to the obvious relish that former county executive Donald P. Hutchinson took in making quick decisions, personally running the day-to-day operations of county government and pumping the flesh while campaigning.
The material symbols combined with his personality have given some critics the impression that Rasmussen is putting on airs, that he is above the people he grew up with in Essex and represented in the General Assembly for 12 years. It is a misconception, Rasmussen says.
He rejects the criticisms, yet has done little to blunt them. But he is expected to launch an extensive media advertising campaign during the last two weeks of the race.
Are the criticisms taking hold with voters? Rasmussen now enjoys a 16-point lead over Hayden, according to the results of a recent poll by The Sun published yesterday. But, given the fac that Rasmussen got 82 percent of the vote in 1986 when he was not an incumbent, his position is much weaker this year. The poll showed Rasmussen with 52 percent of the votes and 36 percent for Hayden.
The Sun poll also showed that Hayden is still unknown to most voters. Sixty-nine percent of the 579 people polled said they had no opinion of him, or didn't know who he is.
The poll also showed that Rasmussen's approval rating is now 47 percent, a drop of 13 percentage points since last year.
"I never realized my public image is of great concern," Rasmussen said recently. "I dress the same way today I did 16 years ago. I conduct myself the same way I did 16 years ago, and I always run positive campaigns. I'm by nature not an attacker. I'm not going to get personal. I don't believe in verbal personal attacks. It's not part of who I am."
The Lincoln Town Car was bought used from a rental company for less money than Hutchinson's Pontiac Bonneville, Rasmussen said. He now uses a replacement Lincoln, bought new.
Most of the antique furniture in the new ceremonial room is on loan, Rasmussen said, and many of the new plantings in the garden were donated, too, he said.
He has repeatedly said that remodeling and improving the aesthetics of county offices was long overdue, as was finding a new home for the badly overcrowded police headquarters, the outdated and obsolete fire department training academy and maintenance shop as well as updating the emergency communications system.
Despite the frequency with which Hayden repeats his charges of Rasmussen's unjustified perks and wastefulness, the challenger did not mention them during their only face-to-face meeting so far, a public service television show aired Oct. 14.
Before the Rossville Democratic Club, one of the largest in the eastern county and virtually in Rasmussen's political back yard, Hayden was not so hesitant. "We don't buy Lincolns. We don't have four-wheel drive vehicles," he said to applause and cheers from some in the crowd. "We spend on people."