Ruppersberger gains speed as he heads for finish line

November 29, 2001|By Michael Olesker

IN HIS athletic youth, when he played football at Baltimore City College, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger was not known for his fleetness of foot. He was a lineman who moved with the grand speed of the glacier. His 40-yard wind sprint was timed with a calendar.

Now, in his 56th year and his final year as Baltimore County executive, he folds his hands over his ample midsection and sees time in office running out, and every ounce of energy is compressed into the words coming out of his mouth.

"The dirt's flying, and I like it," he says.

"The dirt?"

"Yeah," he says. "People see the dirt flying, they see hope. Believe me, whoever comes in after me is going to be cutting a lot of ribbons."

He starts rattling off statistics at a sprinter's pace, which he recites like a breathless mantra: 53 athletic fields created in his administration, and 233 playgrounds. And 275 alleys rebuilt, and 580 miles of roadway, which constitutes about one-quarter of all county roads.

Some of this recitation is an echo of the previous day, Monday, when Ruppersberger delivered his annual State of the County address to movers and shakers who heaved a collective sigh of relief.

The best news of the day was simple: There is no news. Not in the current sense, as delivered by all manner of government leaders and corporate chiefs to working people dreading the worst of it in a declining economy.

No job cuts, said Ruppersberger. No drastic reductions in programs, either, despite the recessionary economy that threatens to carry well into the coming year.

"In Baltimore County, we're in very good shape," he is saying now. "Lots of dirt flying. Lots of hope. Lots of young people."

When Ruppersberger talks this way, he sounds like William Donald Schaefer when Schaefer ran the city: Concentrate on the basics. The way Schaefer focused on neighborhoods, so has Ruppersberger. The lingering pothole becomes a metaphor for all manner of decay.

The aging communities such as Dundalk draw particular tenderness. The day of his State of the County address, Ruppersberger went there to see the dirt fly: a groundbreaking at the Southeast Regional Recreational Facility. In fact, since taking office, Ruppersberger has talked of aging county neighborhoods and drawn connections to the aging city neighborhoods of his youth, and wondered: How can the county avoid the same mistakes the city made?

Entering his last year on the job, he seems pretty pleased. The dirt is flying in constructive ways. He believes he sees more pride in some of the older neighborhoods, based not only on repairs to broken streets and alleys but also on the return of young people.

"I made that a priority," he says. "Young people raising families, get 'em back into Baltimore County. You get 'em by putting pride back into neighborhoods and by creating jobs."

"You strengthen neighborhoods, you bring back the pride, and people hold onto that affection for the places where they grew up."

Others settling in Baltimore County are suburban newcomers: middle-class black families frustrated by city crime and by a city public school system that still lags behind the rest of the state.

"You look at Woodlawn and Randallstown," Ruppersberger says. They are two northwest Baltimore County communities with heavy African-American concentrations. "They're the fastest-growing black communities in America - and their median income is higher than the average county income."

The question is: Will the county handle integration with more grace than the city managed it over the last 40 years? Ruppersberger admits, for example, that there have been some problems in the public schools.

"Because," he says, "the kids are coming from schools that weren't challenging them to schools that are."

While this is happening, the county schools have an estimated 40 percent minority enrollment. That's about twice the minority percentage of the county population. It indicates, among other things, that a number of white families are opting for private or parochial schools. And it raises the inevitable comparison with city public schools, which are now 90 percent African-American.

"We are a very diverse county," Ruppersberger is saying now. "Diverse in many healthy ways. Not only people's backgrounds, but the diverse kinds of jobs we have, the amount of manufacturing."

He is back on economics. The words charge out of him: the number of new private jobs created in the county over the last seven years (38,000 by his count), the number of government jobs he expects he'll have to cut in a tough economy (none, by his count).

He sounds pretty pleased. In a time when the nation braces itself for recession, Ruppersberger implies that, in his final year as county executive, he wants to see more dirt flying, more fast-paced energy. Pretty good for an old lineman never exactly known for his speed.

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