Ruppersberger likes joining fray Activist: Working behind scenes or out front, Baltimore County's executive tends to get in the middle.

November 02, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When a golf complex proposed near Loch Raven Reservoir sparked a neighborhood protest and a legal fight, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger squelched the row by offering to have the county buy the contested land for a park.

And when a drugstore magnate's helicopter commute triggered an outcry from Green Spring Valley residents, Ruppersberger intervened again, seeking an acceptable landing area even as county inspectors cited the businessman for zoning violations.

Ruppersberger's moves in the high-profile cases last month provided a rare public look at his aggressive, hands-on style, which is usually restricted to behind-the-scenes negotiations. From minor neighborhood controversies to statewide legislative fights over school spending, he is always in the middle.

"I think Dutch wants everybody to be happy all the time. He likes to feel that he's the guy who makes a difference," says former County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson, a fellow Democrat.

That penchant for deal-making, essential in Ruppersberger's days as a lawyer and prosecutor, provoked irritation and occasional ridicule a decade ago when he was a relatively obscure and powerless new member of the County Council. As he gained influence in county government, he never subscribed to conventional political wisdom that says staying above impassioned fights is safer.

Sometimes, his intervention has backfired.

In late 1995, for example, as preservationists battled to save the historic Samuel Owings house, he agreed to allow the owner to move the 200-year-old building to make way for an office tower, then rebuild it. But the owner leveled the house and has yet to rebuild it, causing resentment among preservationists.

Ruppersberger does not shrink from the activist label.

"My style is very strong," says Ruppersberger, viewed as a heavy favorite for re-election next year and a potential Democratic candidate for governor.

Making a difference

"I'm the boss. If I show leadership in my job, I'll be re-elected."

In his first term as executive, he has made a big difference in pushing the county's agenda, more than doubling state aid to the county for school construction, pushing economic development and bolstering older neighborhoods.

He also has forged the county's once-fractious General Assembly contingent into a force to be reckoned with in Annapolis and has established a strong fear of disloyalty among elected officials and the county bureaucracy.

"He loves people, he loves to solve problems and he loves his job," former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly says about a one-time political opponent who has become a close friend. "It comes natural for him to mediate."

Kelly, a Democrat, also warns, "Don't cross him."

'He's not done'

Some see political motives blended with Ruppersberger's activism.

"Name recognition and image have got to be first. He's not done in politics," says John D. O'Neill, president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association and an old Ruppersberger foe.

Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican and a friend of Ruppersberger's, says the executive is sensitive to community pressure.

Many county residents praise his activist ways.

"I think having someone at the county level who is willing to take action is a big asset for the voters of Baltimore County, a very big asset," says Royal Johnson, a neighborhood leader who has fought the proposed golf complex near Loch Raven Reservoir.

Robert J. Barrett, Ruppersberger's special assistant and longtime campaign manager, wasn't always so sure about his boss' activism.

In 1990, Ruppersberger was representing a conservative, largely Republican district in the northern part of the county where hundreds of voters were howling over rising real estate assessments.

Out in front

Democrat Dennis F. Rasmussen, then the county executive, kept a low profile and avoided the residents' often-raucous meetings. Ruppersberger did show up and, against Barrett's advice, opposed the 2 percent annual limit on tax increases that residents wanted.

Barrett recalls advising Ruppersberger: "If you get out in front and go against the grain, it could hurt you politically." He told Ruppersberger to "stay low-key."

Ruppersberger now proudly notes that of the seven council members, only he and one other, Melvin G. Mintz, were re-elected that year. Rasmussen also was turned out of office.

Ruppersberger is also proud of his ability to work with Republicans, an ability that won him a year as council chairman in 1993, under Republican County Executive Roger B. Hayden and a GOP-controlled council.

"That's my personality; that's who I am," says Ruppersberger, whose fellow Democrats now have a 5-2 advantage on the council.

Some, including Riley, worry that Ruppersberger's continued intervention could subvert the legal process and affect a case's outcome, or set a precedent that would cause problems.

Others, including Rasmussen, have come to appreciate Ruppersberger's negotiating skill, which, with his warmth, gets results.

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