One-way ticket to political nowhere Baltimore County executives rarely rise much higher

September 08, 1996|By Larry Carson

AS THE GOVERNOR'S political problems mount, Democratic political observers are buzzing with the names of possible challengers including Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger III.

Ruppersberger says he's flattered by the attention, but he didn't initiate it, and right now, he's concentrating on getting re-elected as county executive.

If history is an indicator, it may be wise for Ruppersberger to try to hold on to his current job.

In the 38 years since Baltimore County has had home rule, only one county executive has gone to the state house - Spiro Agnew - and only one other, Donald P. Hutchinson (1978-86), has served two full terms.

Agnew took advantage of a split among county Democrats to win the executive's post in 1962. Four years later, he was elected governor after campaigning as a liberal Republican in a campaign tinged by race baiting. The Democratic candidate, George P. Mahoney, opposed open housing and campaigned under the slogan, "Your Home is Your Castle" - an appeal to white voters.

In 1973, Agnew's tenure as county executive came back to haunt him. He resigned as vice president after pleading no contest to a federal tax evasion charge stemming from a Baltimore County-based corruption scandal.

In 1974, Agnew's successor, Dale Anderson, a Democrat, was forced out of the post during his second term and jailed on corruption charges spawned by the same investigation nailed Agnew. Anderson was convicted of extortion for taking kickbacks in exchange for awarding no-bid contracts.

Theodore G. Venetoulis, a liberal Democratic reformer, was elected executive after Anderson. He did not seek re-election, choosing instead to run in the gubernatorial primary, where he was soundly defeated. If Venetoulis was counting on a strong showing on his home turf, he was wrong: He failed to win a single precinct in Baltimore County.

Ventoulis was replaced by Donald P. Hutchinson (1978-86), a moderate Essex state senator who lacked Venetoulis' flair and vision, but ran county government honestly and quietly for eight years. He is the sole county executive to serve the maximum two consecutive terms.

Dennis F. Rasmussen and Roger B. Hayden each lost re-election bids after one term. Their stories show just how fickle Baltimore County voters can be.

In 1990, Rasmussen had a $1 million war chest, no primary opposition and a seemingly trouble-free path to a second term in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-1. Yet he lost - and badly - to Hayden, a Republican who had a mere $130,000.

Rasmussen fell victim to sharply rising property assessments - something beyond his control - which touched off an "anybody but Rasmussen" movement.

The state government calculates property assessments, and Rasmussen raised county property tax rates only 4 cents in four years, but he got all the heat for rising tax bills.

The growth management plan that channeled most new development into Owings Mills and White Marsh was conceived by Venetoulis and implemented by Hutchinson. But Rasmussen got the blame in neighborhoods where the schools and the infrastructure were strained by the new construction.

Indeed, everything from Rasmussen's county-owned Lincoln Town Car to his monogrammed French cuffs became campaign issues and his re-election hopes were dashed.

Hayden fared no better than the man he defeated.

A sharp economic downturn forced Hayden to lay off hundreds of county workers and to close libraries and senior centers. Voters also blamed him for a salt shortage during the ice storms in January 1994 which left many roads in treacherous condition. Hayden promised to cut the fat out of county government, but the majority of voters thought he went too far.

Will Ruppersberger enter the gubernatorial race and risk winding up like Venetoulis or will he travel the safer road leading to a successful second term like Hutchinson?

Only time will tell. If polls show that Gov. Parris N. Glendening is vulnerable, and he is rebuffed by the legislature next year, Ruppersberger and other Democrats may be tempted to challenge him.

As president of the Maryland Association of Counties this year, the naturally gregarious Ruppersberger has forged ties with local politicians all over Maryland, especially with Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, and with Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, who are also mentioned as possible contenders for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Francis X. Kelly, a former Baltimore County state senator and a Ruppersberger friend and confidant, says the executive is often encouraged to run for governor.

"Everywhere we go, lots of people whom I respect, business people who have the ability to raise money, ask Dutch to run," he said, adding that the encouragement is "diverse, broad and substantial."

On the county level, the conservative, but affable executive has several things to brag about.

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