2 leaders team up for their counties Ruppersberger of Balto. Co., Duncan of Montgomery unite

January 02, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Like brothers on the same athletic team, the county executives of Baltimore and Montgomery counties have forged an unusual, but complementary alliance. In just one year, the relationship has matured from exploratory niceing.

The ultimate goal for both C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III of Baltimore County and Douglas M. Duncan of Montgomery County is regional cooperation to attract tax-paying, job-producing companies that will help finance new roads and schools despite looming federal budget cuts.

Meanwhile, the fellow Democrats' position at the head of large, urbanized counties could offer a shot at the governorship -- although both say they are focused solely on their current jobs.

"They're two guys who are clearly going to be part of the Maryland [political] landscape for the future," says Terry Rubenstein, chairwoman of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce.

Adds Donald P. Hutchinson, Greater Baltimore Committee director and former Baltimore County executive, "Both of these guys have ambitions."

The bonds between the executives have grown steadily.

Mr. Duncan, for example, attended the Baltimore County chamber's Dec. 7 legislative breakfast with Mr. Ruppersberger. The Baltimore County executive recently attended an arts ball in Montgomery County. And the two counties plan another joint reception during the 1996 General Assembly session.

"It's to our advantage in the state of Maryland to all work together," Mr. Ruppersberger says.

Their friendship marks a sea-change in relations between leaders of Baltimore and Montgomery counties -- two of the state's three largest localities.

Recalling his days in the legislature during the 1970s, Mr. Hutchinson charitably says: "Baltimore County dealt with real-world politics, while Montgomery County legislators always had a very different view of the world."

John S. Arnick, a Dundalk Democrat who began serving in the House of Delegates in 1967, describes it a bit differently: "In the old days, when we didn't like them and they didn't like us, sometimes we'd be nasty just for the hell of it. I think there's real potential" in a coalition.

The affable Mr. Ruppersberger has worked to make friends across Maryland in his new role as president of the Maryland Association of Counties and as a member in the "Big Seven" club of local leaders. Still, he seems to have a special friendship with Mr. Duncan.

They clearly hit it off personally. "So much of politics is relationship and trust," Mr. Ruppersberger says.

"I'm the only person in the state who's bigger than he is," the 6-foot-4-inch, 250-plus-pound Mr. Duncan says of his 6-foot,1-inch, 245-pound counterpart. Side by side, they could be taken for brothers, though Mr. Duncan, at 40, is nine years younger.

"We joke that with [Anne Arundel County Executive] John Gary we're the 'Bigger Seven,' " Mr. Duncan laughs.

But the similarities in political styles, and the personal rapport, have a serious purpose.

Mr. Duncan, a former mayor of Rockville, campaigned on a theme of leadership and economic development, and a promise to end Montgomery County's isolation within the state.

"I don't feel we're seen as part of the state of Maryland," he says. "We're seen as sort of an island."

He wants to end that perception, stop the bickering over state support for Baltimore City, and be a take-charge leader in contrast to the county's more passive past executives. His first move after winning election last year, he says, was to go see then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who advised talking with "Dutch" first.

After a meeting in Towson and a few follow-up discussions, it became clear to both men that Baltimore and Montgomery counties have a lot in common, and can help each other. Cooperation began in a small way last year, when both executives supported a bill making auto theft a felony, and helped get it through the tough Judiciary Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates.

Now, Mr. Duncan is seeking more state money for road construction.

"It's the No. 1 issue," Montgomery County lobbyist Ben Bialek says, citing a $50 million backlog of road maintenance problems that has the local business community hopping mad. Baltimore County also wants more of the state highway money that now goes to Baltimore City.

At stake is $750 million over the next five years. Under the current formula, the city, which has no state-maintained highways, gets half the money distributed to local governments; the other half is divvied up among the remaining 23 jurisdictions.

But because of the history of animosity between the city and Montgomery County, Mr. Duncan alone has little sway to change the state formula for allocating funds. That's where Mr. Ruppersberger can help -- though Gov. Parris N. Glendening has not agreed to any change.

"Dutch has worked with [Mayor Kurt L.] Schmoke. Him stepping up gave credibility to me and Montgomery County," Mr. Duncan says.

Mr. Ruppersberger, meanwhile, wants to prevent Baltimore from losing money overall, perhaps by supporting a state takeover of funding for the city state's attorney's office.

"My agenda is a little different," Mr. Ruppersberger says. "Don't let the city fail. I'm trying almost to mediate."

Mr. Schmoke says he is aware of Mr. Ruppersberger's efforts and says he has no problem with them.

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