Rasmussen begins to feel chill of leader with the wrong image

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 04, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Dennis Rasmussen looks as if he belongs at the helm of a yacht, with a cool drink in one hand and a gentle breeze rustling through his sunlit hair.

The Baltimore County executive affects monogrammed shirts with fancy cuff links. He wears double-breasted jackets and cruises around town in a Lincoln. The nation slips into the maw of a recession, and people in a hurry to find shelter look for symbols of the breakdown.

The polls show Rasmussen's in trouble with Election Day 48 hours away. Shirts and jackets and Lincolns, do they mean anything? Ask Bob Hughes, Baltimore County's public information director.

"Well," he says, "Hutchinson drove a . . ."

He calls across the room to an assistant, inquiring what the previous county executive, Donald Hutchinson, used for transport.

"What did Don drive, a Bonneville?" he asks. "Yeah, a Bonneville."

And Rasmussen has a Lincoln. Does this have anything to do with running a government? Of course not. Does it have anything to do with voters' images of a politician? Absolutely.

In the winter of our discontent with the nation's political incumbents, Rasmussen's people worry he's about to get frozen out of office. The whole country's ticked off, and some incumbents are going to lose their jobs for reasons not necessarily having anything to do with their own records.

In Rasmussen's case, his people say it's a case of mistaken identity. Everybody knows his name, but nobody knows what he does for a living. For weeks, his radio ads have struck a theme.

"Did you know that Dennis Rasmussen [fill in your favorite cause]?" a voice asks.

And another voice replies, "I didn't know that."

It's a last-minute scramble to undo the ambiguities of four years. Barry Silverman, who helped produce the spots, says this:

"We did research in March which showed people didn't see any change; they couldn't name the stuff Dennis had done. They didn't know he'd done the 4 percent property assessment cap. They didn't know he went to Annapolis and tried to shift the tax burden off senior citizens. That's why we decided on the theme: Did you know, did you know?"

A week ago, in Cockeysville,Rasmussen was campaigning outside a fire station when a voter confronted him about property assessments.

"They're too high," the man said. "Mine went up 150 percent."

"The county doesn't assess houses," Rasmussen explained. "The state does."

"What do you mean? The office is right there in Towson," the man said.

"But it's a state office," Rasmussen said.

The county executive's people see that as a story emblematic of his problems: Uncertain of who does what in government, the voters are ready to blame the most handy politician.

"People don't take the time to look at the issues," one Rasmussen insider complains. "They deal in this peripheral stuff. In post-literate America, people don't read anymore. It's all TV images, and that's how they draw their conclusions.

"They remember Don Schaefer looking at potholes on Sundays, and they say, 'Yeah, he's one of us.' Or they remember the seal pool. It's not Rasmussen's style to put on funny hats and costumes. He just doesn't do it. On him, they see these monogrammed shirts and double-breasted suits, and these things have nothing to do with what you've done in office."

On the radio the other day, a caller asked a talk show host, "What about this sauna in the county executive's office?"

Rasmussen's people heard this and hyperventilated. There is no sauna in his office, but the talk show host did nothing to deflect the question. In the process, the sauna became part of the persona of a man in a monogrammed shirt riding in a Lincoln.

In a time of generalized throw-the-bums-out mentality, all of this adds to Rasmussen's problems. In a time of belt-tightening, it's hard for any incumbent to look like a hero -- particularly one who dresses like an earl.

"It's true," Bob Hughes says, "that his opponents call him Taxmussen. And that does have a ring to it. It's guilt by association, and people are angry. But look what they're angry about. They were told it was morning in America, and it wasn't. They hear about $500 toilet seats in Washington, and they mishmash things together.

"They look at Dennis wearing double-breasted suits and monogrammed shirts, and some people find that irritating. One of the principal complaints we hear is that he's trying to impress people with his clothes, the Lincoln.

"Well, that shouldn't mean anything. Personally, he's shy; he's retiring. He's not a typical politician that runs in and works a room. He levitates to a corner. Some see it as arrogance, like he's too good to talk to them. But it's shyness. And anyway, what's it got to do with him working 15-hour days?"

In a time of generalized disgruntlement, a lot. In a time of diminished attention spans and superficial insights, lots more.

Rasmussen's people aren't certain exactly how much more, but with 48 hours left until Election Day, it's clear they're concerned about things that ought to be beside the point but are not.

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