Game plans on the political court

March 31, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

TO WATCH C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger with a basketball in his hand is to evoke visions of Tony Siragusa performing Swan Lake. Graceful it is not. Final Four caliber, not a chance. But there was Ruppersberger on Thursday morning, whirling in the pivot and ignoring all cries from the baseline, where Clarence Mitchell IV had a free shot of his own.

"I'm open, I'm open," cried Mitchell, the state senator from West Baltimore.

Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive, seemed utterly oblivious. He was in his own zone. He shifted the ball behind his back, left hand to right around his entire girth, a considerable trip. Now bulling his way toward the basket the way Lonny Baxter might, Ruppersberger drove, stopped, went up for a jump shot. The distance between his feet and the floor was perhaps three-eighths of an inch. The shot bounced harmlessly off the rim.

"I was open," said Mitchell.

Open, he might have added, for all kinds of possibilities.

The two of them, Ruppersberger and Mitchell, were sharing the little basketball court at the ESPN Zone at the Inner Harbor on Thursday morning as part of a television interview. The angle was: The University of Maryland goes for the national championship this weekend in Atlanta, and here are two of its distinguished alumni - Ruppersberger, Class of '67, and Mitchell, Class of '79 - shooting a few hoops to visualize the grand possibilities for their old school.

FOR THE RECORD - The spelling of Lonny Baxter has been corrected for the electronic database. See microfilm for original story.

(The scouting report on their abilities: Mitchell hates to go to his right, instinctively goes to left but may fool everybody in the coming weeks. Ruppersberger, former high school and college football and lacrosse star, handles the basketball with all the finesse of a linebacker throwing a forearm shiver.)

Thus, they will return now to the things they do best: government and politics, and the business of getting themselves (and others, perhaps) elected this fall.

Mitchell will run for re-election to his state Senate seat, but with new district boundaries. And, because he is infuriated by the backroom Parris Glendening maneuvering over those district lines, he is now talking seriously about an alliance with a former political foe, Rep. Robert Ehrlich Jr., who announced last week that he'll give up his congressional seat to run for governor.

Ruppersberger, meanwhile, facing term limits as county executive, will announce his campaign for Ehrlich's seat. The official announcement will come in about a month. In the meantime, Republicans are trying to figure out who will take Ehrlich's place on the Republican congressional ballot.

The two names mentioned most frequently are Ellen Sauerbrey and Helen Bentley. But Sauerbrey still carries some troublesome baggage. One, that she was a bitter loser to Parris Glendening eight years ago, when she made wild accusations about voter fraud that fell apart humiliatingly in court.

Also, that private Republican polls show her trailing Ruppersberger by considerable margins. That's why there's now talk of George W. Bush offering Sauerbrey an ambassadorship. It avoids a messy primary over a congressional seat the Republicans are desperate to hold.

As for Bentley, she still holds considerable statewide respect. She was a figure of credibility for Republicans when there were almost none in the whole state. But, now in her eighth decade, there will inevitably be questions about her age and energy.

And it's a tough fight against Ruppersberger, who's had eight years as a centrist county executive.

Meanwhile, Ehrlich will leave that congressional seat to run for a governorship that the Republicans have not held since Spiro Agnew a third of a century ago. Ehrlich faces heavy Democratic registration - and a perception that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the perceived Democratic front-runner, would monopolize African-American votes.

This is where Clarence Mitchell IV becomes part of the equation.

Mitchell is infuriated that new district lines drawn by Glendening pit him against another incumbent, Sen. George Della, and believes the move was willfully injurious to black voters and personally (and willfully) injurious to Mitchell.

Thus, he has been talking regularly across party lines - with Ehrlich.

"At least 10 times," Mitchell said last week, between jump shots at the ESPN Zone. "About me supporting his race against Kathleen. I might do it."

The last time he and Ehrlich talked, he said, was the day after Ehrlich's announcement that he was in the race. Mitchell's support might give Ehrlich credibility among African-American voters traditionally leery of Republicans - particularly conservative Republicans.

Also, it would give Mitchell an opportunity to respond to the new district lines with an in-your-face gesture of his own.

That's the old law of the playground. You foul me, I foul you back. Politics isn't so complicated. At the ESPN Zone last week, when Mitchell called to Ruppersberger, "I'm open," he might have been talking about political possibilities. But Ruppersberger had the ball, and he's got goals of his own in mind.

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