Condemnation plan foe fights a lonely battle

Del. DeCarlo takes stance against Balto. Co. leaders

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

Fellow legislators won't speak to her. The county executive wants to take her on in a debate. Her social life has evaporated. There's a price to pay, Diane DeCarlo is learning, for bucking Baltimore County's power structure.

DeCarlo, 54, a state delegate from White Marsh, has emerged as the leading critic of Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's plan to condemn homes and businesses and make way for developers in Essex, Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown. She stood alone among the 29 Democrats in the county's Annapolis delegation this year in voting against Ruppersberger's condemnation bill. Her drive to let voters decide the law's fate has become so popular that this week, the executive signed a petition to place his plan on the November ballot.

"My colleagues barely talk to me. I made a tough political decision," DeCarlo said. "But my constituents elected me to do the right thing."

Little known outside the east-side district she has represented since 1994, DeCarlo has forged a reputation as a plain-talking populist. Supporters say they aren't surprised that she decided to cross Ruppersberger and other political leaders on principle.

"Politicians get pushed around so much once they get in office, but she struck me as a person that isn't going to let other people step over her," said Debbie Caldwell, whose husband owns the Driftwood Inn in Middle River. The two women met at a 1994 fund-raiser, and Caldwell was quickly won over.

"A lot of people put her in office, and they stand behind her," she said. "She's for us and not them."

`Crusader'

Harry T. Campbell, 55, who could lose his auto shop, Back River Garage, if Ruppersberger's plans are carried out, said, "She's a crusader for the people. She's putting her political career on the line, but she's doing it for the people who voted for her."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1945, DeCarlo lived in Louisiana and Panama before her family settled in Baltimore County when she was 10. Her stepfather, a Bethlehem Steel Corp. worker, engrossed the family in current events around the dinner table.

Political family

DeCarlo got her first taste of public affairs as a young bride who married into a politically connected family. She married George DeCarlo, whom she met at Kenwood High School when she was 18 and he was 19. Her indoctrination into Baltimore County politics came when she held campaign signs for her husband's uncle, Charles Rasmussen, in a race for the County Council. Rasmussen's son, Dennis, went on to become county executive.

DeCarlo's desire to serve in the General Assembly solidified as she watched the maneuverings of state Sen. James A. Pine Sr., who was considered to be one of the county's most powerful leaders until he left office in 1974. A state police trooper, George DeCarlo was assigned as a driver for Pine.

Before seeking office, DeCarlo became a business owner. She bought a convenience store, a bar and a delicatessen before she was 40. Along the way, she became a lobbyist for 7-Eleven franchises and president of the Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association.

Family tragedy

DeCarlo lost her first attempts for the General Assembly in 1986 and 1990. In 1994, she won the primary, but almost abandoned the race after her husband had a fatal heart attack.

"I wasn't going to go through with it," she said,"but my daughters talked me into it."

Even after her victory, DeCarlo said, she was not fully embraced by the county's political elite. She has never run with the blessing of the Democratic leadership in her district, which would have assured her of establishment votes.

DeCarlo is quick to recognize her shortcomings. A passionate grass-roots problem-solver, she gets tongue-tied speaking in public, even in legislative committees. When Ruppersberger challenged her this week to seven debates on the condemnation bill, she demurred. Del. James F. Ports Jr., a Perry Hall Republican, will take the stage instead.

"She's a terrible public speaker, but she's not going to let it stop her," said Jackie Nickel, an east-side community activist and free-lance journalist. "People say, `Why don't you take a Dale Carnegie course?' She said she took it but it didn't work."

Before taking her stand on the condemnation plan, DeCarlo was visible on few issues. In 1997, she supported a plan to build a NASCAR racing track in eastern Baltimore County; her aging white minivan is still adorned with a bumper sticker that reads "Elect Richard Petty 43rd President of the United States."

A year earlier, as she was leaving a fund-raiser, DeCarlo was stopped for speeding and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. She was sentenced to a year's probation, fined $200 and ordered to attend 12 weeks of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and a 10-week alcohol-awareness course.

The debate over east-side revitalization, DeCarlo said, has been all-consuming. She has little time for socializing or recreation. But she doesn't seem to mind.

"It keeps me going," DeCarlo says. "This is all I have."

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