The Baltimore County Difference


The last time Baltimore County citizens cast ballots for local officials, the exercise was more like a public hanging than an election.

It was 1990, a year of almost rabid anger toward incumbents. Five of the seven County Council members were given the boot by voters.

The focus of the Loathe Fest, though, was County Executive Dennis Rasmussen. The Essex Democrat was castigated for raising taxes, for failing to control development, for being aloof, even for his jewelry and car.

The beneficiary of the anyone-but-Rasmussen movement was little-known Republican Roger Hayden, who must have been as shocked as anyone at not only his victory but also the wide margin by which it was achieved.

What a difference four years make. In 1994, the county electorate seems in a much less nasty mood. The recession, by reining in both development and government spending, has taken care of two major issues that had ticked off voters four years ago.

Nor are there other hot-button topics to get folks steamed. All the county executive candidates recite the same litany about fighting crime, maintaining the quality of public education and boosting economic growth. Certainly these are important concerns that need to be addressed. But they aren't likely to bring inordinately high numbers of voters to the polls, especially when every candidate espouses these themes. Large turnout tends to occur when citizens are mad at a sitting pol or mad about particular issues, or both, as in 1990 in Baltimore County. This political season lacks those elements.

To be sure, the county will see a few intriguing races this summer and fall. In the 11th legislative district, incumbent state Senators Paula Hollinger and Janice Piccinini, thrown together by redistricting, harbor little affection for each other. The 10th legislative district is virtually certain to produce the first black elected local officials in Baltimore County history. In the 8th, Del. John Bishop and Sen. Thomas Bromwell could stage a heated Senate race. And in the 2nd Congressional District, at least three viable candidates are fighting over Helen Bentley's former seat.

Locally, however, the public mood might be symbolized by a recent forum of Democratic candidates for the office of Baltimore County executive. About 80 people showed up. What made this sorry turnout even worse is that only several of those in attendance were citizens. The rest were aides, friends, relatives and others with ties to the candidates.

Granted, it's early. The political season in Baltimore County could yet heat up. But barring any bolts out of the blue, the forecast for the local races looks like this: cool, mostly dull, with little chance of storms.

As a high-ranking county official with long government experience noted this week, ''It's unusual how quiet it is at this point in a campaign. No one has been talking to me about the races like they used to. I'm not seeing bumper stickers. I'm not getting mailings from candidates. I'm not seeing people go door to door. Maybe things will pick up, but right now I'm surprised at how little interest there is out there in these races.''

Third District Councilman Dutch Ruppersberger of Cockeysville, a county executive hopeful who has scored some impressive endorsements, is probably hoping for a continued lack of drama in the primary race. After winning the backing of the county police and teachers unions, the local AFL-CIO and a key political club on the vote-rich east side of Baltimore County, Mr. Ruppersberger is looking more like the front-runner many had predicted him to be.

The Republican primary hasn't sparked much fascination either. Incumbent Hayden is recovering from brain surgery, and his only announced opponent to date is Donald Brewer, a former county employee laid off last year during the Hayden downsizing of government.

Mr. Brewer, and no doubt the ultimate Democratic nominee, will rap Mr. Hayden for the harsh effects his cuts have had on public services. It's debatable, though, whether these attacks will fire up a largely conservative electorate that isn't at all averse to trimming public expenditures.

Mr. Hayden has peeved certain factions in the county, but apparently not so he would receive anything like the treatment given to Dennis Rasmussen in 1990, that singularly dramatic year of the Baltimore County Ballot Box Massacre.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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