Mixing roles not easy for executive Being bipartisan hard for Ruppersberger in key election year

January 19, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Fifteen years ago, when party tickets still ruled Baltimore County politics, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger pioneered a new path between Democrats and Republicans.

As campaign manager for Democratic state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, he helped forge a groundbreaking, nonaggression pact between Kelly and Republican Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey in the conservative north county. It became known as the "unholy alliance."

Now, having built a career downplaying partisan politics, Ruppersberger faces a new challenge in a key election year. As titular head of the county party, he will be expected to use his prestige and bulging campaign treasury to lead the charge against Republicans -- from Sauerbrey, who is running for governor, to local state legislators and council members.

"I want to see him take a role as a spearhead in helping us secure more Democratic seats in both local and statewide elections," says Larry C. Simmons, chairman of the county's Democratic State Central Committee.

Most expect he will do that -- but only to a point.

"I don't expect this leopard to change his spots," says Del. Martha S. Klima, a Towson Republican, referring to Ruppersberger's past balancing act.

Adds Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a Republican from Perry Hall: "I'm hopeful that my relationship with Dutch has been such that when Democrats run against us, and they will, he will take a direct, hands-off approach. I think he can do that."

Ruppersberger, who is seeking re-election, is eager to avoid political squabbling until the 90-day General Assembly session ends in April.

But his recent public appearances show how tough it is to mix the roles of county executive and political leader.

One day he visited Mount Carmel Senior Center in Parkton, a community where Republicans equal Democrats, and told Angela Dories she can't have the new one-floor senior center she wants -- even in an election year -- because the county doesn't have money for the project.

That evening he feted the county's fast-growing, heavily Democratic, African-American community by using campaign funds to pay for a reception for Del. Adrienne A. Jones. The 21-year county employee recently was appointed to the House of Delegates from a district that covers a slice of West Baltimore, Woodlawn and Randallstown.

A few days later, he escorted Gov. Parris N. Glendening in a half-day, pre-campaign swing around the county, Glendening's third visit in recent weeks.

'I'm a Democrat'

When the political season gets rolling this spring, Ruppersberger says, "I'm a Democrat. I'm not going to support Republicans."

He sees it like an athletic contest, he says: You compete hard during the game, but when it's over, it's over.

Still, he adds, "I will be choosing [to be active in] certain races where I feel that certain incumbents have been very good for Baltimore County. I don't plan on putting together a power machine or anything like that."

He's already doing that, even for Democrats threatened in primary elections -- normally a no-no for party leaders.

Ruppersberger is supporting west county Sen. Delores G. Kelley against school board member Robert F. Dashiell, for example. He says he will fight anyone -- Democrat or Republican -- who runs against Sens. Thomas L. Bromwell of Fullerton, Michael J. Collins of Essex or Councilman Louis L. DePazzo of Dundalk.

With $564,000 in his campaign fund and a big fund-raiser scheduled for March, he has plenty of money to back his friends -- and make new ones among the state senators, delegates, court officials and County Council members in 1998 elections.

Political realities

Some Republicans say Ruppersberger's independence is in keeping with modern political realities, which have caught up with his philosophy.

"In my opinion, we're living in an era of the independent voter," says Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican re-elected in 1996 with significant Democratic support in eastern Baltimore County. Endorsements today are almost meaningless. People are strongly independent."

Old-line Democrats have noticed the change, too.

Bromwell, for example, a 19-year veteran legislator with ties to Baltimore County's old east-side Democratic political organization, says he's not gunning to defeat his two 8th District Republican delegates -- Redmer and Del. James F. Ports Jr.

"I have a better relationship with Ports and Redmer than I've ever had," he says. "Those two were the people's choice."

Still, some are wary.

"I don't know how it's going to go," says Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Catonsville Republican worried about a Democratic challenge. "This is a very personal thing," he adds, wondering how he'll feel about the Ruppersberger "team" if he survives the election despite opposition from the executive.

Governor's race

The governor's race could be a different story because, as some note, Ruppersberger might have a very personal interest in it.

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