Ruppersberger poised for next political move

2002 governor's race is a possibility for Balto. Co. executive

April 14, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

One of the state's most powerful Democrats, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, has a $529,000 campaign fund and a reputation as a power broker playing at the top of his game.

But as the prosecutor-turned-politician prepares for a fund-raiser at Martin's West tonight, a frequently asked question is whether he can broaden his appeal enough to challenge Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the Democratic primary for governor in 2002.

"I haven't heard or seen anyone who thinks that there's anyone out there that can beat Townsend right now," said Del. James F. Ports Jr., an Essex Republican.

Townsend is seeking support among major Democrats. She raised her statewide profile considerably during the 1998 gubernatorial campaign.

Ruppersberger, 53, who is in his final term, refuses to discuss publicly his political future.

"My plans right now are to do the job for Baltimore County that I was elected to do," he said. "Whether there's another campaign for some other office down the road, that's something else, and we're going to have to wait and see."

Since he took office in 1994, he has increased pay for police and firefighters, pumped millions into sagging neighborhoods, established strong ties with business groups and helped bring 28,000 jobs to the state's third-largest county.

During this year's legislative session, Ruppersberger trekked to Annapolis about two or three days each week in his county-owned Ford Expedition, ultimately securing at least $17 million in state money to construct and renovate Baltimore County schools next year and millions for county highway projects and community centers.

At the same time, he increased his statewide profile.

"You see him around here quite a bit. He's a nice guy, he seems like a bright guy and the Baltimore County delegation loves him," Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said last week.

Some political observers see a slight chance Ruppersberger would run for the 2nd Congressional District, which is slated to be redrawn after the 2000 census.

Most say Ruppersberger -- who oversees a $1 billion budget and 7,700 employees -- is more interested in being governor. That means he'll have to increase his visibility in places such as Montgomery County, the state's largest jurisdiction and a base of support for Townsend and another possible Democratic rival, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Other Democrats mentioned as possible gubernatorial candidates include Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry and U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

Unlike the other possible candidates, Ruppersberger remains unknown in the Washington suburbs outside of political circles.

"No one in Montgomery County knows who he is," said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, another Montgomery County Democrat.

That could change with enough television advertising in the months before the 2002 election, experts say.

"In the age of television you can become known overnight," said retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Edgar Silver, a political observer.

The fund-raiser tonight is expected to reap $300,000 and attract about 2,000 people who have paid $125 and $500 a ticket.

Those who know Ruppersberger, a talkative and outgoing politician, say that his strength lies in winning over potential opponents.

Michael Friedman, vice president of the Meadows Association, a homeowners' group concerned about development on the eastern side of Green Spring Valley, said he expected Ruppersberger to stop in for a brief visit when he invited the executive to a community meeting at his home in October.

Ruppersberger ended up staying three hours.

"You don't always get what you want in terms of the final decision, but he does listen, and you have to respect him for that," Friedman said.

Critics say Ruppersberger's style stifles dissent, discouraging constructive debate.

"He has his own priorities, and if someone else's way of seeing things conflicts with his way, I don't think he's amenable to changing his way of thinking," said Robert Dashiell, a member of the Baltimore County school board who ran unsuccessfully last year against Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Ruppersberger ally.

Dashiell said that he and others hit a brick wall when they disagreed with Ruppersberger over the authority the county Human Relations Commission should have in handling discrimination complaints.

But Ruppersberger said he was able to win support for a compromise measure by "making sure that bill wasn't opposed by the business community."

Blair Lee IV, a Montgomery County political analyst, said that Ruppersberger's pro-business policies might sell well in conservative Baltimore County, but not in Washington's more liberal suburbs.

"To win down here, he has to break out of the role that he has of being another Baltimore-area politician, and I don't see that happening," Lee said. "I think if he comes down here, people will look at him as an oddity."

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