Goal of Venetoulis supporters: See Ted run

February 24, 2002|By Michael Olesker

HE IS 67 YEARS old but has the energy of a man 20 years younger. He's been gone from elected office for 25 years now, time for a whole new generation of voters to arrive who do not know his name. But he is Ted Venetoulis, and his name a kind of political glamour to Baltimore County voters old enough to remember.

His friends want him to run again for county executive. It is 2002, but maybe it could be 1974 again. Venetoulis has been listening to this argument for months now, from political pros who have met privately with him to tell him the county needs his drive, and his ideas, the way it did a few decades back.

You can see the glimmer in Venetoulis' eyes. The years in politics were the most fulfilling of his life. But now he's a gentleman business executive with a working wife, a baby daughter, a home in lush surroundings - and a couple of aching knees that would keep him from hopping hedges the way he once did when he raced from house to house campaigning for votes.

Back then, an era of astonishing political corruption, of developers handing envelopes to politicians who could pull strings for them while nobody was watching, the newcomer Venetoulis ran as a breath of fresh air. Throw the rascals out, he proclaimed. It was his first run for office, and he won it not only with big numbers but with an aura of enthusiasm that seemed to symbolize all the bright days arriving in suburbia.

This time, it's not the individual rascals so much as a rank system that troubles him: In politics, more than ever, money is all. Venetoulis doesn't have the stomach for it - for the backroom deals, for all the hours of soliciting donations from people who inevitably would anticipate favors in return.

So, when the old pros first came to Venetoulis, he laughed at them. He found the notion too fantastic for words, and told them he had no heart for the finances, no legs for the campaigning. Anyway, he said, isn't Bromwell going to run? But state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, who has toyed with the idea, and raised money, has his own family situation: young children, and a wife who dreads the idea of him away from home late into the night 12 months a year.

So among the people pressing Venetoulis are those close to Bromwell. Piece of cake, they've told him. Bromwell could work the county's east side for Ted, and Venetoulis has always been popular on the west side. In fact, in 1974, Venetoulis won east-side precincts by 10-to-1 margins, and west-side precincts by 12-to-1 margins.

And in the heavily Democratic county, who's the competition this year? So far, Jim Smith - a former judge, well respected, but a man known to thousands of county voters as some guy named Smith.

So Venetoulis is legitimately torn. He has the good life, but it's not necessarily the most fulfilling life. On Thursday, he spoke to a breakfast meeting of the Greater Baltimore Economic Forum, where Robert E. Latshaw, organizer of the event, referred to him as the "potential Baltimore County executive candidate." It was the first time such words have been uttered in public, and The Sun's Andrew A. Green quoted Venetoulis in the fullness of his ambivalence.

"It's very difficult for a person at my stage in life to think about politics," he said. "I'm not saying there aren't people who are talking about that and urging that, and that's their prerogative. ... Being county executive is a great job ... , but it's just not in my head right now."

In the language of politics, where sentences are parsed within an inch of their lives, some took this as a signal. "Not in my head right now" translates as: "But tomorrow, it could be. So I don't want to rule anything out."

It's not a case of a man trying to be coy, or induce a better deal for himself. It's a man genuinely trying to sort things out. But included in the sorting is not just the question of winning. It's the county itself. It's 24 years since he left office. And, although his election 28 years ago seemed a harbinger of bright suburban tomorrows, Baltimore County faces a whole new set of problems.

Time changes everything. County neighborhoods that once sparkled with youth now seem rundown and edgy. Streets and alleys need repairs. A school system that was one of the best in the state shows signs of anxiety. The problems Venetoulis faced long ago were not specifically those with which C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has wrestled in recent years.

So there's the ambivalence. The old pros are flattering him like mad, and lining up all kinds of potential support. It's pretty heady stuff for anyone. But his current life is already fulfilling. It's the American dream, the kid from a working-class rowhouse, from immigrant parents, who runs an entire county and then goes off to big business success and a grand lifestyle - and wonders: Is it enough?

And that's the real question facing Ted Venetoulis.

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