'You've got to work it hard': Dutch delivers

April 13, 1997|By Elise Armacost

BALTIMORE COUNTY'S business in Annapolis was just about done last Monday morning, the last day of the 1997 legislative session. But Dutch Ruppersberger, Baltimore's County's moving microburst, was not.

There he was, from 10 'til who knows when, working the lobby, schmoozing, telling his delegation not to take anything for granted until the last vote is history and the last speck of confetti litters the floor.

He looked big, even against the grand scale of the State House. He barely paused for breath. ''It's not over 'til it's over,'' he said, pumping his fist at someone across the lobby. Then, turning to me, ''That's why I'm down here, see? You've got to keep them together, like a family. You've got to keep working it. You've got to work it hard.''

Right then Baltimore County Del. Joseph J. ''Sonny'' Minnick walks over, and tells how the county executive has succeeded ''in badgering a group of people who were all looking out for themselves'' -- the 37-member local delegation -- into hanging together.

''Teamwork,'' Mr. Ruppersberger says, pumping that fist again. I half-expected him to slap Mr. Minnick five, or pull a pom-pom out of his pocket.

''Dutch,'' says Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, ''is a rah-rah type of person.'' He coaches, he cheer-leads. He plays a full four quarters. And while sometimes you suspect his verbiage is bigger than he is, this session proved he does more than talk a good game.

This is not news. The Baltimore County delegation's effectiveness has increased exponentially since Mr. Ruppersberger's election. It's not coincidental. His predecessor, Roger Hayden, had no interest in state politics and left the delegation to its own devices. It was so large, so geographically and ideologically diverse, that it fractured. It couldn't influence important statewide votes or bring home the kind of state funds for schools, parks and roads a county this size should expect. ''We were just sort of there,'' says Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman.

Now Mr. Sis-boom-bah has drummed the team ethic into them, and look what has happened. Baltimore County won $25 million in state money to build new schools and fix old ones, five times what it got it in 1994, the year before Mr. Ruppersberger was elected. Total state aid to the county this year increased by $27.4 million, or 10.5 percent -- the greatest percentage increase of any subdivision.

Delegation made the difference

For the second straight year, the delegation made the difference on the matter of most importance statewide. (In 1996 all but three county lawmakers voted for the Ravens stadium, saving that project for Baltimore.)

This year's most important issue, a Baltimore school-aid bill that will reform management of the city's failing education system and pump $254 million into it, pitted the city against the counties. No one was going to vote for it just because they care about whether thousands of city children grow into citizens who can't read and write, the powerful Washington suburbs least of all. The counties wanted a little something for themselves -- $333 million over five years, most of it headed to Prince George's and Montgomery.

Mr. Ruppersberger saw that that was ridiculous; the state couldn't afford so much, even with millions in unexpected revenues coming in. He told the Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford executives that he would break ranks if a reasonable counter-offer came down the pike. When it did ($167 million over five years), he did.

He asked the other big executives to join him; only Howard's Charles I. Ecker did. ''I told them they were being greedy. I said, 'Haven't you ever heard of fiscal responsibility?' '' That cost him, temporarily at least, a real and politically valuable friendship with Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan.

Then he lobbied the lawmakers -- his own and other counties', too. ''I worked my votes, and who won?'' he says, a trifle smugly. He delivered his entire delegation. It may have made the difference, considering that the bill passed the House by a mere seven votes.

Mr. Ruppersberger's involvement was ''critical,'' says Ms. Hoffman, a key supporter of the bill. ''He has a vested interest [in the city], and he's smart enough to know he has a vested interest. But he threw all his energy, effort and strength behind [the bill], not just to get a good deal for Baltimore County, but because it was also the right thing to do.''

That's why he looks so much better right now than his counterparts in Prince George's and Montgomery. They carried devotion to their counties too far. ''You get as much as you can for your county,'' Ms. Hoffman says. ''But when you've played out your hand and it comes right down to it, you do what's in the best interest of the state. You decide on the merits of the bill. Dutch used his muscle, and he used it to do the right thing.''

Rah, rah.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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