Gov. Ruppersberger? No, wait four years Mr. Ruppersberger's decision shouldn't be made based on speculation about what might happen.

March 29, 1998|By Elise Armacost

DON'T DO IT, Dutch.

This spring, the flattery is flowing toward Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's office in Towson faster than the sap through the maples, and is just about as sticky-sweet.

Every day, he hears from those who live in fear that Republican ideologue Ellen Sauerbrey will become governor, telling him he is the man to save us from that fate. Pointing to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's low approval ratings and Mr. Ruppersberger's own dread of a Sauerbrey regime, they appeal both to his sense of obligation and his ego. You can beat this governor in a primary, they say. And you owe it to the state to try.

This is heady stuff, but -- unless you are quite sure you are ready for a run for Maryland's highest office -- as conflicting as it is gratifying. Mr. Ruppersberger is not sure. He has said all along that he intends to seek an all-but-assured second term running the county, a job he loves and at which he has excelled; help Mr. Glendening get re-elected; then think about 2002.

No one knows if he will stick to that sensible plan; he may not know himself. "He's been cranky lately, which is so contrary to Dutch's personality," Towson Councilman Douglas R. Riley, a Republican, said. "I take that to mean he's under tremendous pressure."

If he's smart, he won't cave in. A run for governor now would be bad for him and, more importantly, not helpful to the citizens of Maryland for three reasons: 1) His first obligation is to the people of Baltimore County; he needs to finish the job he started.

One-term wonders

The county needs continuity; the previous two executives were one-termers. This older suburban county needs attention after years of neglect. Schools, struggling neighborhoods, public safety and economic development have begun to improve under Mr. Ruppersberger's consensus-oriented leadership. This is the work he is prepared to do this next term.

2) Mr. Ruppersberger lacks a message that would be effective and that would offer voters a meaningful choice. His real reason for running -- to make the general election tougher for Mrs. Sauerbrey -- makes a lousy primary platform.

A good platform would include issues and policies that contrast with the governor's. But the two differ little. Mr. Ruppersberger supported the governor's anti-sprawl Smart Growth initiative, the Ravens' stadium, extra aid to city schools. In turn, the governor has allocated tens of millions of dollars for local schools, roads and other projects.

One could build a campaign around character and ethics. A challenger could legitimately attack the governor on that front. Still, evidence of outright corruption is lacking, and without it that would be an unlikely, unpalatable tactic for a man like Mr. Ruppersberger, who dislikes confrontation. He has made an ally of the governor and has many friends in the legislature. He likes to be liked. And he would not be everybody's friend if he waged war on the culture of Annapolis.

3) Mr. Ruppersberger has money for a campaign ($800,000 in the bank) but he does not have time. He would be unlikely to enter the race until after he secured the governor's commitment to local school construction funds in mid-May. That would leave a little more than three months to make himself known to voters outside the Baltimore area. He would have no time to prepare for the scrutiny high-profile candidates endure, or to develop thoughtful positions.

Basically, his campaign would have to be a media blitz. There would be little substantive discussion. Marylanders deserve better.

Those who want Mr. Ruppersberger to run for governor now say he might not have a better opportunity. His second term might not run smoothly, Mrs. Sauerbrey might win and prove popular, other Democratic hopefuls might be formidable opponents in 2002. Any of this might happen. A more likely scenario: 1) the governor will win; 2) if he loses, a Sauerbrey term would be tumultuous; 3) Mr. Ruppersberger's opponents will have problems of their own.

The what ifs

Whichever, Mr. Ruppersberger's decision shouldn't be made based on speculation about what might happen. The governorship is too important an office to seek unless one is ready for it and has a good reason for wanting it.

If Mr. Ruppersberger ran now, it would be as a tool of political and business leaders looking for a weapon against a governor they don't like. Meanwhile, Mr. Glendening sits with a boatload of money, four challengers to split the discontented primary vote and policies most Marylanders like even if they don't like him.

Dutch should wait. His time is not yet.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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