Ruppersberger avoids predecessors' pitfalls

August 14, 1995|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

Small, but potent, political symbols have ruled Baltimore County politics in recent years.

The Lincoln Town Car used by former County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen became a symbol of his perceived excesses -- and of his political demise in 1990.

The austere Roger B. Hayden -- another one-termer -- got rapped by leaders of county employee unions for giving department heads 4.5 percent raises in 1992 when union members had received no cost-of-living boost.

Yet in his first eight months, County Executive C. A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger III has hardly been scratched after several similar moves.

The county purchased a $26,500 Jeep Cherokee for his use and Mr. Ruppersberger hired several top officials at annual salaries more than $20,000 over prior levels. He's also given raises ranging as high as $11,596 to several veteran department heads, even though 18,000 county workers received no general pay raise.

Mr. Ruppersberger's political skills have shielded him from strong public criticism, either by county union leaders or normally sharp-tongued politicians such as Dundalk Councilman Louis L. DePazzo, a fellow Democrat.

"He's a hell of a politician. He talks a good game," says John D. O'Neill, president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association, who is a persistent critic of taxes and government spending.

"I like the guy, but I didn't support him," the conservative, often outspoken Mr. DePazzo admits.

The councilman says although he didn't like Mr. Ruppersberger's move to reduce the property tax discount as part of a plan to lower homebuyer closing costs, he provided the decisive vote for it. Mr. DePazzo isn't happy about the higher salaries either, but has not complained publicly.

"To me it's just great that somebody seems to care," he says about Mr. Ruppersberger, adding praise for the executive's "completely open communications."

The best example of the impact of Mr. Ruppersberger's friendly, persistent style may be his relationship with T. Bryan McIntyre, a conservative Republican who took over his old council seat.

During last year's race for county executive, Mr. McIntyre recalls, "the guy who was friendliest to me was Dutch. I was a big supporter of Roger Hayden's. I thought he did what he was elected to do. But Hayden virtually ignored me."

Since the election, Mr. Ruppersberger has spent hours helping the novice councilman learn about his district and about how the county government works.

The result?

"I think he's doing a pretty super job," Mr. McIntyre says.

Mr. Ruppersberger "looks like he's on his way to be a two-term executive, but you never make judgments on the first six, seven months," former County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson says. That's high praise from the only man ever to serve two full terms in the county's top elective job -- from 1978 to 1986.

Keeping Merreen E. Kelly, who was Mr. Hayden's administrative officer and is well regarded by middle managers, has helped tremendously, says Mr. Hutchinson, now executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Administrators who actually implement an executive's policies, not department heads, "may be the most critical players," Mr. Hutchinsonsays. They can make the elected official look good or look bad. "Ruppersberger recognizes that."

The critics make another point.

"I'm a penny-pincher," Perry Hall Improvement Association president Dorothy McMann says, adding that Mr. Ruppersberger's actions are disturbingly symbolic of a willingness to spend public money. "I'm not in favor of those large salaries."

But she and other critics praise Mr. Ruppersberger's style.

"He's a consummate politician," she says, explaining that Mr. Ruppersberger can comfortably work both sides of an issue -- developers and the community, for example. And unlike the moody Mr. Hayden, Mr. Ruppersberger "will let you know how he feels."

Mr. Ruppersberger says he won't bow to the bogyman of political symbolism.

That approach has created almost no stir so far, but could mean trouble next spring. County union leaders have made clear that regardless of state or federal budget cuts, they want a raise for members, who have received only one general pay increase in the last five budgets.

But Mr. Ruppersberger and spokesman Michael H. Davis believe that if the big things get done -- alleys get fixed, schools get built, and the budget stays lean -- the small, symbolic spats won't be politically damaging.

For example, they cite the sharply higher property tax assessments in December 1989 as the spark that made voters receptive to criticism of Mr. Rasmussen's personal tastes -- his car, cuff links and monogrammed shirts.

If the county had done a poor job last winter cleaning the snow, Mr. Davis says, the Jeep purchase for Mr. Ruppersberger might have become controversial. It hasn't.

Mr. Ruppersberger says his personal style of leadership and his cautious fiscal approach will win out.

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