Looms as a theme for 2002

SB 509

Balto. Co. candidates say failed legislation shows power misuse

January 09, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

In a new twist on the running-against-Towson theme of Baltimore County elections, candidates this year are focusing on County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's failed property condemnation plan in hopes that it will resonate with voters who defeated it two years before.

The latest to join the field is Noel Levy, an Owings Mills Internet entrepreneur and vice chairman of Citizens for Property Rights, the lead group in the fight against Senate Bill 509, as Ruppersberger's initiative was known.

The candidates are not focusing on the content of the bill, which would have expanded the county's condemnation powers to aid revitalization efforts on the east side and in Randallstown.

Instead, they intend to point to it as evidence that the government in Towson is autocratic and ignores the interests of the people.

"I've lived in eight political jurisdictions in my life in four states and have never seen the lack of respect for constituent issues like I have here," said Levy, a Democrat, running in the council's 4th District, covering much of the west side. "It's amazing. Horrible."

Baltimore County voters are not shy about showing their distrust of the political establishment in Towson. In 1990, Roger B. Hayden, a political novice, capitalized on economic uncertainty and general voter unrest to oust incumbent County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, a candidate whose prospects had looked so strong that no one challenged him in the Democratic primary.

In the same election, five of seven council incumbents and the sheriff lost their posts.

This year, the two announced candidates for county executive -- Democrat James T. Smith Jr., and Republican Douglas B. Riley -- and hopefuls in three council districts also are making the perceived lack of concern for the public a central part of their campaigns.

Del. A. Wade Kach, a Republican from Cockeysville, said he's considering a run for County Council in the 3rd District, which includes the rural north county.

Although he steered clear of direct criticism of Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, whom he might face in the primary, Kach said he would like to be an advocate for more open county government.

Looking back at issues

"Basically, if I look at the last three or four years at issues involving Baltimore County, such as `509,' the county jail [expansion] and redistricting, the County Council and the county executive have basically shut out public input, and that is of great concern to me," he said.

In the fall, Kach was a co-host for a series of public meetings on the county's redistricting process, which was criticized by community groups that said it was completed too quickly and with too little public input.

His partner in the meetings, Del. James F. Ports Jr., a Perry Hall Republican, was a prominent opponent of SB 509 who also believes that voters will remember the issue in November.

Ports said he has a committee of supporters interviewing voters on how they would view him as a candidate for county executive, County Council and Congress. He said he'll probably decide this month what office he will seek.

A council race could pit him against two incumbents in a redrawn 5th District: Towson Republican Wayne M. Skinner in the primary and Perry Hall Democrat Vincent J. Gardina in the general election. Skinner and Gardina's districts were merged in the redistricting plan approved by the council last year.

Ports' prospects for a congressional run won't be known until the General Assembly redraws district lines during the current legislative session. One scenario being discussed would pit Ports against Ruppersberger, setting up a rematch of their debates over SB 509.

Both have said they would relish the chance to revisit the issue.

"I think [SB 509] is going to have a lot of legs, not so much for the property rights issue itself but what it represented," Ports said. "What you saw was grass-roots fighting City Hall, per se and winning. That is going to drive the issues this year."

The county is pushing ahead with revitalization on the east side without the condemnation powers of SB 509.

In contrast to other early hopefuls, Debra Hettleman Plant is focusing on more tried-and-true themes of Baltimore County politics.

"The things that I keep hearing over and over again from people I talk to are education, safety and stabilizing older communities," said Plant, who might challenge Councilman Kevin Kamenetz for the Democratic nomination in the redrawn 2nd District.

In the 4th District

Noah Levy's race has a strong extra political dimension. The 4th District was created to have a large African-American voting majority and no incumbent, clearing the way for the election of the county's first black councilman. Levy is white.

In the summer, a group of African-American political leaders on the west side, headed by state Sen. Dolores G. Kelley, endorsed Planning Board Chairman Kenneth N. Oliver, who is black, for the seat.

Levy said he doesn't think race will be the issue next fall.

"This political contest is not about skin, it's about what you put in, and I'm talking about taxes," he said. "People are paying taxes out here all the time, and are they getting that tax money back from Annapolis, from Towson? Are they getting it back for schools, sidewalks, drainage, police and other issues?"

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