Race to succeed Ehrlich begins

Three-way Republican primary is possibility

Ruppersberger waits

Newly drawn 2nd District

March 27, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

CLARIFICATION: An article about the 2nd District race for Congress in yesterday's Maryland section did not mention a Democrat who has filed with the State Board of Elections. Oz Bengur, 53, an investment banker from Ruxton who has never held elective office, filed on March 19.

As one of a few races that will determine control of Congress, the campaign to succeed Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich in Maryland's 2nd District will attract national attention and campaign money, but the outcome will likely hinge on the candidates' well-established local reputations.

Ehrlich announced Monday that he will run for governor, and speculation on the race for his seat ranges widely.

Some political observers in Baltimore County, which makes up most of the district, say County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat, will avenge the defeat of his east-side revitalization bill of two years ago.

Others say any one of three Republicans -- former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, Del. James F. Ports Jr. or Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a former candidate for governor -- would mop up the floor with him.

With hopes of a gubernatorial bid waning last fall, Ruppersberger expressed interest in running for Congress, provided Gov. Parris N. Glendening could draw a district favorable to a Democrat in the once-a-decade redistricting process. He did.

Ruppersberger said he has to continue lobbying for the county's agenda in Annapolis, finish his last budget as county executive and make sure the legislature approves the new congressional district maps before announcing.

"Unless something dramatic happens that would change the circumstances, it is my intention to make my announcement that I'm running for Congress at the end of April or the first week of May," he said yesterday.

Congressional Republicans, who narrowly control the House of Representatives, tried to persuade Ehrlich to run for re-election. Now that he has announced for governor, the pressure is on him to help a Republican win the district.

Ehrlich has said neither he nor the national party wants a Republican primary in the district, but three prominent Baltimore County Republicans -- Bentley, Ports and Sauerbrey -- have expressed interest in the seat.

Ports, who is also eyeing runs for County Council and county executive, said yesterday that he would do whatever Ehrlich thought would help him most in his race for governor.

"To get him elected is our No. 1 goal," Ports said. "If it would benefit him for me not to run at all and literally just do campaign work for him, I would do that."

Bentley and Sauerbrey were not quite as willing to cede control of their political futures.

Sauerbrey said her family is a major consideration -- she is caring for her 89-year-old mother -- as is the overall success of the party. She said she has talked to Ehrlich about the race and will continue to do so as she makes up her mind.

Bentley said she is working with the Republican national leadership and waiting for the legislature to approve the district lines. Her response to the possibility of a Republican primary? "We'll see."

Further complicating matters is the history of tension between Bentley and Sauerbrey. Bentley didn't support Sauerbrey in her races for governor in 1994 and 1998 and, famously, wouldn't shake her hand at a party unity breakfast in 1994. Neither they nor their supporters in the party ever fully reconciled.

Speculation among county Republicans over the last few weeks has been that the party would get behind Bentley rather than Sauerbrey, who lost her last two races. Bentley has won in the area before, and, because she is 78, ambitious young Republicans figure she wouldn't hold the seat for more than a term or two, opening the way for them.

Last month, the National Republican Congressional Committee conducted a poll testing possible matchups between Ruppersberger and Bentley, Ports and Sauerbrey in the 2nd District.

The proposed district lines have changed since, but the poll showed the more conservative Sauerbrey could beat Bentley in a primary, but the more moderate Bentley would fare better against Ruppersberger in the general election.

All three Republicans bring distinctive advantages to the race.

Ports gained attention in 2000 when he engaged in debates with Ruppersberger over Senate Bill 509, the east-side revitalization proposal. Bentley represented much of the district for years and is well-regarded for her constituent service. Sauerbrey brings name recognition earned through two races for governor, and she came close to beating Glendening in that part of the state four years ago.

Ruppersberger would be campaigning against history. Only one Baltimore County executive -- Spiro T. Agnew, who became governor and vice president -- has ever been elected to higher office.

He would also be running in a part of the county where he still has strong detractors from the S.B. 509 debate, but Ruppersberger has continued efforts to revitalize the area through other means. And the district also extends into portions of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

"While there was a strong feeling from people that were opposed to 509, I don't think it was a personal thing," said Robert J. Romadka, an Essex attorney and former chairman of the Baltimore County Democratic party. "I think he did a lot to mend fences after 509."

Republicans aren't sure the district is so favorable to Democrats, especially Ruppersberger.

"There are enough Republican elements in that area that a Republican could win," said Carol L. Hirschburg, who used to work for Sauerbrey.

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