United under county vision

Lawmakers to work together toward goals Ruppersberger shares

State funds sought

School construction, neighborhood renewal are among proposals

January 17, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Honed during the five years of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's administration, Baltimore County's strategy for wrestling money from the General Assembly could pay off better this year than ever before.

Once again, the county's 37 state senators and delegates have been asked to set aside personal preferences in favor of Ruppersberger's agenda. In a year when money is plentiful because of a $1 billion surplus, the payoff could be remarkable: the fulfillment of an ambitious blueprint that includes $24 million for neighborhood renewal projects and $41 million for school improvements.

Ruppersberger and his top aides have learned from experience that when the Baltimore County delegation speaks with a single voice, it gets more. Now is the time to ask, they say.

"The fact of the matter is we didn't do too terribly well in the past. We weren't as focused," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat and chairman of the county's Senate delegation. "I think what Dutch is trying to do is articulate a vision for the remainder of his term. These things are very doable within the next three years, I think. What we hope for is a commitment for the money to be there when we need it."

Ruppersberger has asked for more school construction money than ever before. He has revealed plans to create a pedestrian-oriented town center in Owings Mills and a waterfront village in Essex/Middle River. The two projects would require at least $30 million in state dollars over the next two years, which the county says it would match.

But administration allies say the scope of those requests should not be surprising: Plans have been in the works for years, they say, and a continued healthy economy has brightened their prospects.

"Everything is timing," said Francis X. Kelly, a former state senator who is a frequent Ruppersberger adviser. After taking office in 1994, Ruppersberger's top legislative priority was securing more money to fix long-neglected schools, Kelly said. Now the goals have been expanded.

"Now you go after the visionary things," Kelly said.

With 29 Democrats and eight Republicans, the county delegation represents diverse constituents with widely disparate needs. Still, dissenting voices have not surfaced.

"One thing the county executive has been able to do is galvanize the legislative delegation, both the Republicans and the Democrats," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell. "That's something no other delegation can say."

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican first elected in 1998, calls Ruppersberger "one of the most bipartisan players that I have met yet in politics."

"It's very different than the way a lot of business is done," Harris said. "Dutch really does respect all the legislators, and in return he gets a head start to a unified approach."

Baltimore County learned a painful lesson about unity in the early 1990s, when competing requests from local legislators for school construction money backfired and the county received only a third of the money it had sought.

Since then, Ruppersberger has taken pains to build consensus for his program. In 1997, the county sought $30 million, and received $25 million.

Like any sharp politician, Ruppersberger spreads the wealth widely. Every lawmaker can claim that a school in his or her district will be renovated. Of the two Police Athletic League centers the executive wants to build this year, one is on the east side, the other on the west. Seven proposed streetscape projects touch all corners of the county.

"The county usually looks out for the needs in my district," said Harris.

While Ruppersberger is imploring the Baltimore County delegation to stay on target, some observers predict his personal interests might wander.

"Lurking over this session is the shadow of the 2002 gubernatorial race," said Blair Lee IV, a political columnist and former lobbyist for Montgomery County. With more than $1 million in campaign donations and prohibited from seeking a third term as executive, Ruppersberger is strongly considering a run for the Democratic nomination.

"In the end, Dutch will be as responsive to Baltimore City as he is to Baltimore County," Lee said. "For a Baltimore County executive, the road to the governor's office runs through Baltimore City. Dutch needs the media, financial and political power of the city to be elected as governor."

Ruppersberger often preaches the benefits of regional solutions to problems. He met with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley this month to discuss potential joint legislative priorities.

But Ruppersberger supporters play down the role of political positioning in Annapolis this year.

"I think the campaigning will start when the [legislative] session ends in the year 2002," said Collins, the Essex senator. "Dutch is very clear on that."

Regardless of political aspirations, Ruppersberger predicted harmonious relations with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who is supporting Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the nascent race.

"We have the strongest voting bloc," Ruppersberger said. "And we deliver on every major issue."

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