Can Dutch run for governor?

May 10, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

THESE ARE TIMES that try Dutch's soul. It has been a discomfiting 12 months for Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Once, he looked like a strong contender for governor; now it would take a remarkable turnaround to achieve that goal.

Thanks to the number 509. That's the state Senate bill he pushed through the legislature last year. It proved a dreadful mistake.

The county executive's intentions were on target, but his implementation was shockingly inept.

The bill's aim: revive blighted parts of Baltimore County, particularly Middle River. The method: condemnation to make way for redevelopment.

Nothing wrong with the premise. Lots of governments do it. But not Baltimore County.

Property rights is a sensitive issue in some sections of the county. For decades, it's been a hot-button item, particularly on the east side.

So when Mr. Ruppersberger charged ahead with S.B. 509, he was tempting fate.

Sure enough, opponents turned it into a dispute between the "little people" and "big government" about to crush them.

The county executive thought he could succeed by explaining the facts to folks. Was he ever wrong.

The emotions of opponents won out. Their simplistic, though off-base, accusations were easy for voters to grasp. Mr. Ruppersberger's argument was too subtle.

The county executive kept tripping himself. He insisted on a series of debates, figuring his verbal skills could turn the tide. Wrong.

Then he announced he used his campaign funds to promote S.B. 509. That hurt. He needed to advertise his message.

Voters clobbered his bill.

He also goofed on another local issue -- a bigger county jail. He decided to enlarge the current Towson jail, which sent neighbors into an uproar. They had a simplistic message -- big government forcing a big jail down their throats. Although he won this fight, Mr. Ruppersberger looked like the bad guy.

Meanwhile, he's been under intense media scrutiny, which he views as harshly one-sided. In an era of "gotcha journalism," every action is being questioned.

Yet he runs one of the better local governments. You can't compare it to the corruption-laced days of Dale Anderson.

Mr. Ruppersberger has proved to be an able manager and motivator. His conservative instincts led to a large rainy-day fund. But his social instincts prompted huge spending on school repairs -- a decades-long neglect.

The county executive turned out to be a superb conciliator. Why is there little friction between him and the County Council? Because Mr. Ruppersberger is willing to hear the other side out, sell his point and seek common ground.

He's been attentive to most communities -- be it better snow-removal work, alley replacements, speed humps or recreation fields.

Yet he's one of the few willing to stick his neck out on regionalism. If only Baltimore's mayors would match his aggressiveness.

Mr. Ruppersberger is term-limited. In 2002, he's got to run for another office, or restart his law practice. Governor is his first choice.

He'd probably be good at it. He's been a solid county executive, much as Douglas Duncan has been in Montgomery County and Wayne Curry in Prince George's County.

But they all can't be governor. Especially when the early front-runner is Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who can run a feel-good campaign because she's got no executive responsibilities.

Mr. Ruppersberger, though, had to fight tooth and nail on redevelopment issues; Mr. Duncan on road issues; Mr. Curry on labor issues. They've been steeped in controversies while Ms. Townsend has waltzed through her terms.

Dutch Ruppersberger wants to make the run. He's not well-known around the state. He's not the liberal, charismatic type who'd capture the imagination of Washington-area voters.

He appeals to conservative and middle-road voters, while she appeals to the Democratic left, a key factor in party primaries.

It's worth a try.

There's no telling how Ms. Townsend will fare in a rugged campaign. She's not good on her feet: At a recent Board of Public Works meeting where she subbed for the governor, her remarks were carefully scripted to avoid embarrassing flubs.

There's also no telling what voter sentiment will be like in 15 months, especially if the state's economy hits a recessionary wall.

It's been a discouraging 12 months for Mr. Ruppersberger. It would take tremendous fortitude to embark on a nonstop fund-raising drive, a statewide publicity drive, a campaign-organizing drive and a hard-edged issues crusade showcasing the weaknesses of the Glendening-Townsend years.

Does he have the burning, inner fire to go for broke, even though the odds aren't in his favor?

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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