City school-aid deal strains friendship of 2 politicians Montgomery, Balto. Co. executives at odds

April 03, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Among the yet-uncounted casualties of this contentious legislative session is the relationship between two men who in the past three years had struck up a fast friendship and forged a potentially powerful political alliance.

These days, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan -- influential Democrats who had even been mentioned as possible running mates on a dream-team ticket for governor -- are little more than polite to each other.

The dispute between them stems from the pending Baltimore schools deal, in which the city would realize $254 million in new education aid from the state.

Ruppersberger is supporting the legislation, which he believes benefits the state overall and his jurisdiction in particular because of its proximity to the city. He maintains that legislators from Montgomery and elsewhere are going too far in withholding support for the deal until they get more school aid themselves.

Duncan views Ruppersberger as having abandoned a promise to stick with the executives of the Maryland's largest jurisdictions -- the "Big Seven" -- in uniting behind a proposal for more aid for all of the state's 23 counties. He and others say Ruppersberger cut his own deal at the expense of Washington suburban counties.

"Frankly, they had a difference of opinion. [It was] the first time they ever had a public disagreement," said an aide to one of them. "They might have some hurt feelings."

The falling out is one example of the personal toll of parochial politics in Annapolis this year over the schools deal.

Both executives are reticent to discuss their dispute in detail and are maintaining a friendly veneer. "I would hope this doesn't hurt our relationship," Ruppersberger said. "We're friends. We still talk," Duncan said.

But people familiar with the situation say that despite the assertions to the contrary, the rift between the two is real. Assessments of its depth and whether it has staying power vary.

The once-warm relationship between Ruppersberger, 51, and Duncan, 41, marked a huge change in dynamics between leaders of two major counties that have found themselves at odds.

From the beginning, the two first-term executives worked closely to bridge the gap between the Baltimore-area jurisdictions and suburban Washington counties. They became friends, socializing and taking each other to Orioles and University of Maryland basketball games.

'Higher decibel level'

"Dutch and Doug like each other, and when you have a difference of opinion between them, it's going to take on a higher decibel level than it would if they were both just acquaintances," said David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Ruppersberger and Duncan are on the periphery of the legislative process, but each has a stake in the deals being cut around the city schools legislation.

The bill, which passed the Senate last week and is pending in the House, calls for city schools to receive the $254 million in new aid over five years. At the same time, a new school board -- appointed by the governor and mayor -- would take control of the school system.

The two executives, not unlike other local leaders, have urged their legislative delegations to make sure they bring home as much additional aid and pork-barrel projects as can be squeezed from the state in return for support of the city schools deal.

And therein lies the rub.

The Big Seven executives agreed this year to push a unified proposal for more school aid statewide, instead of having each executive try to strike an individual deal with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislative leaders.

"We really had the opportunity for the suburban counties to be powers as a unified bloc," said one executive. "We were going to avoid 'every man for himself.' "

It seemed like a good strategy, but Ruppersberger apparently got the urge to break ranks not long after the agreement, in part because legislative leaders complained that the counties were being piggish.

A disagreement over strategy erupted last month at one of the Big Seven's weekly legislative lunches in Annapolis, when Ruppersberger told the other executives they were holding out for too much money.

The discussion turned into a near shouting match between him and Duncan, according to several accounts.

A 'heated debate'

Ruppersberger concedes that it was a "heated debate," but nothing personal. "Doug and I are strong advocates for our positions," he said. "We have different constituencies and different needs."

Duncan agreed. "I wouldn't call it an argument," he said. "I expressed my opinions very forcefully, and he did, too."

In the wake of the lunch meeting, Ruppersberger agreed to sign a Big Seven letter asking Glendening to discuss their call for $44.1 million in new aid for the rest of the state next year. That was considerably less than initially sought, but still too much for legislative leaders and the governor.

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