Is albatross for Ruppersberger

SB 509

Popular county exec would be no shoo-in in a run for governor

March 29, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Business leaders, lawyers, developers and politicians gathered in Woodlawn last night for an event billed as a celebration of C .A. Dutch Ruppersberger's 25 years of public service.

But an unspoken question filled the cavernous function room at Martin's West: How many years does he have left?

Ruppersberger, 54, cannot seek re-election as Baltimore County executive, and the only other office he has expressed interest in is governor. The estimated $350,000 raised at his largest annual fund-raiser last night, combined with $1.6 million available cash reported in November, would certainly aid a statewide campaign.

"People have been asking me to look at it, and I am," Ruppersberger said. "That's not news."

It's also not news that his prospects appear bleak.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend remains the heavy favorite to succeed Parris N. Glendening. The conservative-leaning Ruppersberger, a Democrat, is little-known in the populous and liberal District of Columbia suburbs. Locally, his popularity took a beating from last year's disastrous economic-development initiative that became a ballot-box loser.

"He certainly has the money to be a serious contender, but I would still have to categorize him as something of a long shot," said Herbert C. Smith, a professor of political science at Western Maryland College. "I don't think the fundamentals have changed in terms of it being Kathleen's to lose. Opinions aren't written in stone and things change, but it is hard to see him breaking into her key support groups, which would be African-Americans and women."

Barring a seismic opinion shift, Ruppersberger could find himself without a taxpayer-funded paycheck after the 2002 election.

"It's a huge game of musical chairs," said Blair Lee IV, a Silver Spring developer and political columnist. "There's more candidates than chairs. Dutch is in real danger of being one of the people left standing up. He's term-limited, and the other offices seem to have front-runners."

The other most-frequently mentioned Democratic candidate, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, has more options. Unlike Ruppersberger, Duncan can seek a third term, is mentioned as a possible lieutenant governor candidate with Townsend, and is a proven vote-getter in the state's most populous county.

Three years ago, when Glendening looked weak, leading Democrats were encouraging Ruppersberger to enter the governor's race. He demurred, choosing instead to seek re-election as county executive. His future looked unlimited when he captured 71 percent of the vote - and won every precinct.

But that was before Senate Bill 509.

In January 2000, Ruppersberger unveiled the economic development package that would have allowed county government to condemn private property for revitalization. A citizens' revolt was sparked. Opponents forced a referendum, and the measure was defeated more than 2-to-1.

Gene Bremont, owner of a Randallstown service station that Ruppersberger targeted for condemnation, said he remained a supporter but predicted the executive "will just fade into obscurity."

"I think he will run for governor. And on the off chance that he wins, it will be good for the state," Bremont said. "But if he's out of politics for a period, I think he's done. It kind of is a shame. ... I think Dutch has done a very good job in Baltimore County, but he's listened to some wrong people."

Bremont's comments underscore the conflicted public opinion that dogs Ruppersberger in his home base. Many harbor warm feelings for the outgoing, optimistic politician, and generally like what he has accomplished. But Ruppersberger's support of SB 509 came at an inopportune time, scarring his public image just when it needed polishing.

Former Baltimore County Executive Theodore Venetoulis said that Ruppersberger has "earned the right to be considered on a statewide level," particularly because of his effective performance as executive, but that his chances in 2002 are limited.

"Most of the professional folks in this business say he is not a strong candidate," Venetoulis said. "It is going to be a difficult race for Dutch, and `509' did not help him ... Politically, it doesn't quite work out this time."

To be sure, Ruppersberger has many ardent supporters who view the economic development defeat as a surmountable obstacle.

"There may be some political residual which is not favorable, but I think it was minor," said lawyer and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who has raised money for Ruppersberger and is backing him for governor.

Political leaders in attendance last night praised Ruppersberger but stopped short of endorsing him.

He was introduced by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who called the executive "a man who not only talks the talk but walks the walk."

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