Venetoulis stirs talk of run

Election: Despite whispers, the former Baltimore County executive says he's not interested in returning to office.

February 22, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County politicos, starved for intrigue in a county executive race heavy on earnest speeches and light on the political jockeying Towson-watchers love, zeroed in on the fine print at the top of the invitations to yesterday's speech by Theodore G. Venetoulis.

Sure, people were interested in what the former county executive would tell the Greater Baltimore Economic Forum about politics and the economy. But the real buzz was created by five tiny words added by forum official Robert E. Latshaw Jr.: "Potential Baltimore County executive candidate?"

"TV Teddy," as Venetoulis is known from his publicity-loving days as county executive from 1974 to 1978, has never publicly expressed interest in running for the office again, and in a question-and-answer session after his speech at the forum yesterday, he rattled off several reasons why not:

He's got a great life, been very successful in business, recently adopted a baby girl and is 67 years old.

"It's very difficult for a person at my stage in life to think about politics. I'm not saying there aren't people who are talking about that and urging that, and that's their prerogative to do, but I have not sat down and thought about that," Venetoulis said.

"Being county executive is a great job ... but it's just not in my head right now." The message, to some in the audience, was absolutely clear.

"He didn't say no. He's running," said Michael A. Galiazzo, executive director of the Regional Manufacturing Institute and a longtime Venetoulis supporter.

"I think if we don't have an east-side candidate, he's going to run," said Bob Infussi, chief of staff for former County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen and east-side political junkie.

Venetoulis was elected county executive 28 years ago as a brash, young Democratic reformer, promising to clean up county government after the fraud and corruption scandals from the Spiro T. Agnew and Dale Anderson administrations. Four years later, he lost badly in a bid for governor. He's been in private business since.

Donald P. Hutchinson, who succeeded Venetoulis as county executive, said it would be flattering to have people tell you they want you to be county executive again. The job presents tremendous opportunities to do good things.

"If somebody wanted to appoint him, I think he should do it," Hutchinson said.

But the county charter insists on an election, and running would be extremely difficult, he said. Not only is Venetoulis older, but all of the people he relied on to run the campaign and staff the office after he won are of retirement age.

"He's only run for office once and won, and that was 28 years ago. Twenty-eight years ago," Hutchinson said. "And while he's a young-looking, vigorous man who's very intelligent, going back and trying to do it all again is incredibly difficult."

The idea of a Venetoulis candidacy has been grist for the rumor mill since at least last summer. And with little news coming out of the race to succeed County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the chatter has intensified.

Term limits prevent Ruppersberger from running, and campaigning for executive started early. Douglas B. Riley, a Republican and former councilman from Towson, announced his candidacy about a year ago. Six months later, former Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. announced he would seek the Democratic nomination.

Since then, there's been a lot of talk but not much action.

Attention focused first on state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell Jr., a Perry Hall Democrat who many believe would be the instant front-runner if he got in the race. But he's shown no interest in running.

Then there's Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat and close friend of Bromwell. Bartenfelder has joked about measuring the drapes in Ruppersberger's office or setting up a campaign headquarters on the west side, but in more serious moments he says he hasn't made up his mind and probably won't for another month.

On the Republican side, Del. James F. Ports Jr., the Perry Hall Republican who debated Ruppersberger over the executive's east-side revitalization plan in 2000, announced in November that he was exploring a run for county executive, or maybe County Council or Congress. He's still exploring.

By this time in 1994, the last time there was a competitive race, a half-dozen Democrats had been running shadow campaigns for months in hopes of unseating the unpopular Republican incumbent, Roger B. Hayden.

If Venetoulis entered the race, he would benefit from name recognition from his years as a television political commentator, and he would add experience and a personal flair to the campaign, supporters say.

The current candidates, for example, don't start their speeches by poking fun at the audience ("You have enough campaign contributions in this room to fund the gross national product of Italy," he said yesterday).

Nor do they illustrate their points with anecdotes about famed stripper and Baltimore County resident Blaze Starr.

"Ted's got it," Galiazzo said. "Nobody disputes Ted's ability to get elected."

So, Mr. Venetoulis, was that an absolute, definite no?

"It was pretty close," he said.

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