Ruppersberger's support at risk in land seizures

Opponents force Nov. referendum on property rights issue

July 20, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

State elections administrators made it official yesterday: Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger is in the toughest fight of his political career.

Baltimore County's November ballot will contain a referendum on Senate Bill 509, the Ruppersberger-backed law that gives government expanded power to confiscate private land, elections officials confirmed. Opponents of the measure gathered enough valid petition signatures to force a vote, they determined.

So instead of collecting cash and building statewide name recognition for an expected run for governor in 2002, the executive will spend the next few months attempting to quell an insurrection that threatens his political future.

"This is an issue of basic property rights, the right of landowners to do what they please and not have their land seized," said James Gimpel, an associate professor of government at University of Maryland, College Park. "If it's the least bit controversial, it could drag him down. ... He's toast. This issue alone wouldn't sink him. But the fact that he's not doing so well [in early statewide gubernatorial polls], this issue is going to prevent him from getting off the ground."

Even Ruppersberger's staunchest supporters agree that it will be difficult for him to prevail in November. Long-standing distrust of government in many county neighborhoods, they say, means voters could recoil at the prospect of giving the county the power to condemn land for economic development purposes.

"There were two words when I was in Annapolis that put fear in the heart of politicians: abortion and condemnation," said former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, one of Ruppersberger's closest advisers. "I think it's going to be very tough because it is so emotional, and people vote their emotion. ... If I had been advised on this particular issue, I would have told him not to file the bill."

In an interview this week, Ruppersberger said he was less concerned with political fallout than with doing his job as county executive, which he says includes making tough decisions about improving aging neighborhoods.

"It's not about winning or losing," he said. "It's about getting our information out and what we have done and what we will do in the future."

There is little doubt, however, that Ruppersberger faces a problem of his own making, stemming from a miscalculation of how residents and business owners on the county's politically volatile east side would react to his latest revitalization plans.

East-side uprising

This year, Ruppersberger used his considerable influence to maneuver SB 509 through a compliant General Assembly. He wanted the power to seize land and sell or give it to developers along the Essex-Middle River waterfront, and sections of Yorkway in Dundalk and Liberty Road in Randallstown, he said, to boost the economic fortunes of the three flagging neighborhoods.

But east-side business owners and homeowners saw it differently. They called the measure a land grab that helps the rich at the expense of the working and middle classes. They said they were never told about the plan until it was too far along, and that the executive purposely avoided public hearings and outreach.

Organizers based in the Middle River area have succeeded in gathering well in excess of the 24,136 signatures needed to trigger a fall vote - the first time that has happened in Maryland since 1978. Elections workers called them the cleanest, clearest petitions they have seen, testimony to the opponents' unflagging determination.

"I certainly think he misjudged the significance of the issue," said Zoh Hieronimus, a radio talk show host who has raised money for SB 509 opponents. "What we're talking about is the basic liberty that is the cornerstone of our society."

Now in his sixth year as county executive, Ruppersberger is prevented by law from seeking a third term. He has always taken pride in his hard-won support from the east side.

In an area often overlooked by officials in Towson, Ruppersberger spent millions repaving alleys and renovating schools. But in the eyes of some, those accomplishments are being overshadowed.

"When you are very successful, and you do a lot of things right, you tend to overstep sometimes," said Del. James F. Ports Jr., a Perry Hall Republican and leader of the petition drive. "Do I dislike Dutch? No. Do I dislike this bill? Vehemently."

Ruppersberger exacerbated an ever-present east-side inferiority complex, said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a 2nd District Republican. "There is a rational and grounded sense that eastern Baltimore County has [historically] gotten the short end of the stick."

As a potential candidate for governor himself, Ehrlich said he would "duck" the question of whether the ballot vote would damage Ruppersberger, but he acknowledged that the executive probably had other designs for the quiet summer months.

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