'Little Dutch' wears many hats Michael H. Davis is Ruppersberger's spokesman, and more

August 04, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Ask Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III a question, and sometimes Michael H. Davis answers before the executive can open his mouth.

Davis is the executive's spokesman -- and a whole lot more.

He is labor negotiator, lobbyist, political guru, confidant and friend, and the man pacing at policy meetings on issues that range from buying land to filling more beds at the county's drunken driving treatment center. He also finds time to coach his children in sports.

"Mike is everywhere," says Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat who heads the county delegation.

"I think it's unique," Arnold Jablon, director of Permits and Development Management, says of the many roles and the close relationship that Davis has with the Democratic executive.

Davis, all agree, is smart, politically adept, friendly but aggressive, and can effectively represent his boss because everyone knows how close the two men are. He has made a difference that even Republicans acknowledge.

Towson Councilman Douglas B. Riley points to the administration of his fellow Republican, Roger B. Hayden, as an example of the contrast.

A political novice when elected as county executive in a 1990 upset, Hayden floundered politically through tough recessionary times, losing his bid for a second term to Ruppersberger.

"Had Hayden had a Mike Davis, I think Roger would still be in office," Riley says.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, says Davis is like one-stop shopping. Under Hayden, he says, a councilman had to go to a variety of people to solve a problem.

"Mike is a detail man -- Dutch isn't," he says.

Some observers, such as Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, joke that Davis' unofficial nickname is "Little Dutch." But administration insiders say the former Gilman School fullback and Harvard graduate is no "yes" man -- or swelled-head bully.

"Mike and I have a lot of battles behind closed doors," Ruppersberger says.

When they disagree, Davis doesn't mince words, insiders say, and he is not afraid to tell Ruppersberger what he thinks. Yet, Davis never tries to usurp the executive's decisions. He is the person who makes Ruppersberger's policy decisions happen, they say.

But recently resigned fire Chief Allen Thomason and county firefighters union President Kevin O'Connor question the way the stout, rumpled, 36-year-old lawyer handles his many duties.

Thomason, who came from San Diego to be fire chief but was forced to resign after 11 months, says, "I started really getting the sense that Dutch's view was tainted by what [Davis] told him."

Yet even Thomason -- who resented having to meet regularly with Davis, Ruppersberger special assistant Robert J. Barrett and county financial analyst Robin Churchill -- agrees that Davis did as his boss wanted, and never kept him from seeing the executive.

O'Connor, whose members picketed Ruppersberger's budget speech in April to protest the denial of raises for firefighters, says Davis may be "overextended."

"Nobody on his team truly understands labor relations," O'Connor says, complaining that contract talks this year "took a back seat" to other issues.

But Davis rejects that notion and credits Barrett -- Ruppersberger's former campaign manager -- and others with doing much of the work he supervises.

"I think I'm a good delegator," Davis says. "We have good people, and we work as a team."

That team, augmented by Ruppersberger insiders such as former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly and Hanan "Bean" Sibel, the executive's campaign finance chairman, talks constantly, often far into the night, Barrett says.

Davis, the son of a 30-year Baltimore police officer, loves politics and has a genuine interest in helping people, a score of old friends and current colleagues say.

His political career -- like that of a fellow Gilman student, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a 2nd District Republican -- started under the tutelage of teacher and coach Nick Schloeder, a fixture at the private school since 1958.

Schloeder remembers Davis as remarkably strong, confident and unflappable," even when provoked. His nickname in school was "Chunky," like the candy bar.

Schloeder routinely assigned volunteer work in a local political campaign to his students as a way to get them involved in current events. Davis worked in the 1976 campaign of U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat.

Sarbanes staff chief Peter N. Marudas says Davis was usually the first to arrive each day at the Washington office, even though boring tasks such as opening the mail awaited. "He was a hard worker and willing to do anything," Marudas recalls.

Later, while a full-time law student at the University of Maryland, Davis worked on then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer's 1983 re-election campaign.

How did he do both?

"I really didn't go to classes much," he admits, adding that he got friends to give him their notes for studying. He was so interested in politics, Davis says, "I thought I'd never even practice [law]."

But he became a partner in one of Baltimore's old-line law firms, Venable, Baetjer and Howard, before joining the Ruppersberger administration last year.

After working with Ruppersberger's campaign as well as Sarbanes' re-election effort in 1994, Davis found himself doing more and more for the new executive -- so much that he agreed to come on board full time.

Now, he says, the challenge is to make time for his wife, Ann, and children -- a son, 8, and daughters ages 7 and 4. He coaches soccer, lacrosse and baseball.

"My father coached us," he recalls of his childhood days, and notes how quickly they are gone. "I want to be around. I make time for them."

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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