Renewal bill puts Ports in the limelight

A delegate's stage suddenly brightens

September 11, 2000|By David Nitkin and Joe Nawrozki | David Nitkin and Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

They are whispering things in his ear he never imagined a few months ago.

Run for higher office, they plead. Towson needs you. Annapolis does, too.

For James F. Ports Jr., the 41-year-old state delegate from Perry Hall in Baltimore County, what once looked like a path toward political destruction has turned into a life affirmation.

"I'm very flattered that people are saying, `Run for county executive.' I have people saying, `Run for governor,'" said Ports, a Republican. "I'm very flattered that people are responsive to me. But it's not me. It's the issue. I'm having a hard time breaking the two apart."

The issue, of course, is Senate Bill 509.

SB 509, a plan to condemn apartments and small businesses in three county neighborhoods so developers can build upscale shops, houses, restaurants and marinas, is causing fits for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger as it barrels toward a November referendum vote.

Ruppersberger, a Democrat, miscalculated community reaction to the renewal tool that he pushed through the General Assembly this year in a stark display of clout. But Ports, it seems, calculated just right - if by accident - when he thrust himself into the discussion.

It is Ports who helped lead the referendum drive that gathered 44,000 signatures to place SB 509 on the fall ballot. It is Ports who is holding his own with Ruppersberger, the potential gubernatorial candidate with vast government resources at his command, in a series of debates on the plan.

As he is embraced by some, Ports is viewed as a carpetbagger by others in the taverns and crab houses on the county's eastern waterfront.

While he doesn't represent any area where the county could seize property, Ports - a staunch partisan who never strays from the GOP doctrines of lower taxes and smaller government - says the law violates his core beliefs.

"This is a fundamental issue, a sacred part of the Constitution, and Jim [Ports] has given his position a good argument," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a two-time Republican candidate for governor from Sweet Air. "He's a gutsy guy."

However, some say Ports is sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.

Ports "is your basic opportunist," said Del. John S. Arnick, a Dundalk Democrat who supports Ruppersberger's plan. "He saw a large crowd gathering on an issue, and he stepped into the middle of them and began his work."

Sauerbrey, for one, rejects that criticism. The condemnation issue is resonating across the county, she said.

Ports' arguments seemingly have tapped into an underlying voter belief that some county leaders cater more to developers and business interests than to working families.

Not quite `political suicide'

"When I started this, I knew I was committing political suicide," said Ports. "The last thing a politician wants to do is go against another powerful politician, like the county executive. If you don't think Dutch is going to come after me, you must believe in the tooth fairy."

But as weeks pass, as Ports fine-tunes his message, as he shares stages and television studios with Ruppersberger, what once looked like folly suddenly has the trappings of a career-defining moment.

"Now it looks like it's not political suicide," he said. "I'm not sure how it happened. I think what people are longing for is for that person who is willing to risk it all politically, and step out."

Those who know Ports say they are not surprised by his newfound visibility.

"There's probably nobody that prepares themselves better for the job at hand than he does," said Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a fellow 8th District Republican. "Maybe it's his Marine background. If Jim is going to identify a hill to charge, the hill is going to know it's been charged."

That Ports would be mentioned as a possible county executive says much about the insular world of county politics, where the right name is almost as important as the right issues. It also speaks to the growing maturity of a one-time troublemaker who enlisted in the military because he knew he needed discipline, and who says he now spends more time coaching his daughter's soccer team than plotting his political future.

Ports, elected to the House of Delegates in 1990, says he had long rejected the notion of a run for elected office after watching his father, James F. Ports Sr., lose two races for the House in the 1960s.

But it was his father's community involvement and sports connections that planted seeds for a son's future in public service.

As a teen, he worked in his father's struggling sporting goods store, Ports Sports Shop, boasting when he rang up the most sales.

At Perry Hall High School in the mid-1970s, Ports wore his hair to the middle of his back. An indifferent student and class clown, he once set off a smoke bomb near the school's pay phones.

"He probably spent as much time in the office as I did," remembers James Bowerman, the former Perry Hall principal.

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