Balto. Co. leader eyes Congress

Ruppersberger seen warming to House

October 26, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

With his long-presumed gubernatorial campaign dormant, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has expressed a growing interest in running for Congress since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Officially, Ruppersberger says he's keeping his options open, explaining that talk of a congressional run would be premature since the statewide redistricting process won't be completed until early next year.

"I'm looking at different things," Ruppersberger, a Democrat, said recently. "There's a lot of conversations about what's going to happen."

But the executive, who is prohibited by term limits from seeking re-election, has said privately that he's warmed to a run for the House of Representatives. As a former prosecutor, he sees himself as someone who could be of use as the nation re-evaluates its law-enforcement and security capabilities in the wake of the recent attacks.

"He said he thought his wife would like him to get out of politics, but he said that since Sept. 11, he's been feeling like he should stay in because he could do a lot of good," said Mike Ertel, a Towson resident and activist for the Coalition for Open Government, who talked to Ruppersberger about his plans last week.

Going from Baltimore County executive to congressman is not as obvious a step up as it might seem. As executive, Ruppersberger has more constituents and more power to act on his own than he would in Congress.

"Is this something he's constitutionally capable of doing, of sitting there and listening to that kind of debate and amendments to this amendment and the long hearings?" asked Theodore G. Venetoulis, who served as county executive from 1974 to 1978. "A county executive doesn't have hearings. The county executive brings in the department head and says, `Here is what we need to do' and gets it done."

Traditionally, the office of Baltimore County executive has not led to higher political office. Only three executives have been elected to a second term since the office was created in 1956, and only one - Spiro T. Agnew - has gone on to higher office.

Baltimore County executives face two problems in running for higher office. They rarely get exposure in other parts of the state, and the nature of the executive's job makes it hard to please everybody in the county.

"They are held accountable for the issues that hit people in their neighborhoods - it's like the old Tip O'Neill line, `All politics is local.' Well, with local government, it really is," said Donald P. Hutchinson, a two-term county executive in the 1980s. "When you build a jail, you by definition alienate and aggravate somebody. When you want to establish condemnation rights in a neighborhood, you aggravate somebody."

When Ruppersberger captured his second term in 1998, he did it in dramatic fashion, becoming the first executive to win every precinct in the county.

But since then, he's had some well-publicized stumbles. First was Senate Bill 509, his unsuccessful bid to give the county broad condemnation powers to revitalize aging neighborhoods. His proposal to double the size of the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson also met stiff opposition in neighboring communities.

Now polls show Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend heavily favored to win the Democratic nomination for governor, and talk of a Ruppersberger candidacy has abated.

Over the last few months, Ruppersberger, 55, has been wooed by Democratic members of Congress and others in the party to consider a run for the House.

"It's significant that he's stopped talking about the governorship and has moved to the House of Representatives," said Herbert C. Smith, a professor of political science at Western Maryland College. "You don't say this privately and publicly without ample reason." If Ruppersberger decides to run for Congress he must contend with redistricting. Gov. Parris N. Glendening is redrawing the state's legislative and congressional district maps to reflect the results of the 2000 census and will present his proposals at the beginning of the legislative session in January.

In the congressional districts, several factors are at work. Nationwide, Democrats are a few seats shy of taking control of the House of Representatives, and Glendening is likely trying to pick up one or two of those seats by drawing districts more favorable to Democratic candidates.

Ruppersberger lives in the congressional district held by Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has formed an exploratory committee for a possible gubernatorial bid. An Ehrlich-Ruppersberger race would be tough, no matter how the maps are drawn, Hutchinson said.

And creating separate districts for Ehrlich and Ruppersberger poses logistical difficulties and tradeoffs.

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