City's woes on the mind of Balto. Co. executive

May 16, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Behind C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a pretty girl in a lime bathing suit is diving into a swimming pool. The Baltimore County executive is putting away breakfast at the Timonium Holiday Inn. The pretty girl is a visitor with nothing but good times on her mind. Once, people might have seen her as a metaphor for suburbia: young and lovely, and basking in perpetual sunlight. Now, Ruppersberger will tell you, the comparison does not quite hold up.

Between hearty bites of morning eggs, he talks about problems that sound like the city's, writ smaller. The $5.5 million Baltimore County asked from Gov. Parris N. Glendening to fight crime, "and we didn't get a dime." The money the county has poured into schools and aging neighborhoods. The PAL centers where kids are brought in with karate dreams to keep them off the streets after school.

Ruppersberger rattles off projects, and dollar figures, and percentages, with the rat-a-tat speed of a Gatling gun. He is running two races: one, to keep the county away from the awful developments that commenced more than 30 years ago, in his adolescence, in the city of Baltimore; and, simultaneously, to show he is gubernatorial material, even in a time when Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is racing around the state as Lt. Gov. Do-Gooder, and raising enormous campaign money as well.

Many see the effervescent Townsend as the political heir apparent -- especially in such fat economic times, with Glendening generally tossing big money around -- and specifically tossing it in great amounts toward voter-rich Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Rumors abound: that Townsend's financial war chest will frighten off all potential challengers; that Ruppersberger will look elsewhere when his second term ends as county executive; that Democrats will coax him to run for the vulnerable Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s congressional seat.

Ruppersberger says none of these things will happen -- that he will run for governor.

But, in the same way that William Donald Schaefer made his reputation fighting the grand fight in the city, Ruppersberger has to show the whole state -- much of which is only dimly aware of his name -- that he's keeping alive that vision of Baltimore County as a young girl still celebrating the good life.

He grew up in the city and remembers troubling patterns: middle-class flight, first white and then black; the falling standards in some of the public schools, and then others; the physical decay of residential neighborhoods, and crime that mushroomed with each new wave of drug traffic.

"When I came in," Ruppersberger was saying now, "we had a tough recession, we had neighborhoods falling apart, and we had crime going up. When we held public hearings on the budget, 3,000 people would show up to complain. Now, a dozen. They're satisfied we're doing the right thing.

"In the last four years, we've spent more money fixing schools than they did in the previous 20 years. And most of that money's gone where it's needed most. Essex, the southwest, Liberty Road. In Dundalk, people would come up to us and say: `Look in my alley. You can't walk through it, it's such a mess.' People were moving out of here and going to Harford County. People leaving the city would hopscotch us for Harford and Howard and Carroll counties."

Unlike Schaefer, who waved pompons and wore funny hats to distract people from the city's troubles, Ruppersberger sticks to basics: get after crime while it's still manageable; keep the schools healthy; help the neighborhoods in the biggest trouble. Unlike some previous county executives, he also stresses the city and county's mutual dependence. He talked regularly with former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and now with Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"We have to work with the city," Ruppersberger said, "or we can't thrive. Either one of us. People out here don't like the word `regionalism.' To them, regionalism says race. But it shouldn't."

Race is yesterday's news. Baltimore County is about 20 percent black, and the percentage is slightly higher in the schools. With the city tearing down its low-income housing projects, delicate questions have been raised: Where will these folks relocate?

"Our feeling," says Ruppersberger, "is that there's enough existing housing stock in the city to absorb them. But it isn't about race. Middle-class black families are moving to the county. Black community leaders are here. Liberty Road has gotten quality families the city can't afford to lose. And we don't want to lose them either. Our challenge is to keep middle-class families, black and white, from moving to Carroll County."

What prompts them to go is a memory of the city three decades ago: of increasing crime and neighborhoods under stress. The mention of this sends Ruppersberger into another rat-a-tat mode: crime programs that sound like the city's ("We're going after 10,000 outstanding arrest warrants"); PAL centers ("We teach karate just to hook 'em, and then we teach values"); and wise spending ("We took the politics out of it -- not to give money to those who yelled the loudest, but those who needed it most.")

Behind Ruppersberger, the young girl in the bathing suit splashes blithely in the water. The morning is bright. In the current metaphor, Baltimore County has its modern troubles, but the sun is a long way from setting.

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