Dark horse aims to shine in campaign for Congress

Oz Bengur to oppose Ruppersberger in primary

April 15, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Oz Bengur insists that he knows what he's doing.

Sure, hardly anybody knows who he is, and he's running against a guy whom everybody knows, in Madonna- or Cher-like fashion, by one name: Dutch.

And yes, he's challenging C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger for the Democratic nomination in a congressional district drawn by the governor specifically with the term-limited Baltimore County executive in mind.

Then there's the fact that Ruppersberger has won all five elections he's entered during the past 17 years, while Bengur's only campaign was to be an alternate delegate to the 1980 Democratic National Convention from Maine. (He won. It was, he says, quite an upset.)

He last worked in government in 1983, his opponent has a milelong political resume, and he doesn't yet live in the 2nd Congressional District, but Oz Bengur is no flake. He's got money, he's got a big-name campaign consultant, and he intends to win.

"For some politicians, it's a game of musical chairs. There's not enough chairs, so what do you do?" Bengur says. "This has got to be more than musical chairs and finding a spot for a guy to continue his political career."

Bengur, 53, is an investment banker who wears Ferragamo ties and has a tendency to quote from The New Yorker. He runs nearly every day and finished a 5K last year in a respectable 25 minutes.

He owns a house in Ruxton, but now that legislative maps are finalized, he's planning to move to the 2nd District, which stretches from Randallstown around to Timonium, over through the east side of Baltimore County, around to southern Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County and up to Havre de Grace.

Bengur filed for the seat last month and is planning a campaign around the topics of increasing health care access, improving education and fighting urban sprawl.

To combat Ruppersberger's name recognition, Bengur says he plans to run a vigorous race (he's taken a leave of absence from work to campaign full time) and get his name out at every opportunity. That, and raise a lot of money.

According to a campaign finance report filed last week, Bengur has $297,000 in his campaign treasury.

Ruppersberger reported nearly $1.6 million in a November finance report, but all of that money was raised when he was plotting a run for governor, meaning very little of it can be transferred directly to a federal campaign account.

Almost all of Bengur's money - $290,000 - came from his pocket, but he says he plans to hold a number of fund-raisers in the next two months. He said he expects that between his business contacts and fellow members of Princeton University's Class of 1971, he'll be able to raise enough for the advertising he'll need to be competitive.

"I think it will get people's attention," Bengur says. "It shows we're serious out here."

Another attention-getter is Bengur's campaign consultant: Julius Henson, a bare-knuckled city politico known for take-no-prisoners campaigns.

As a consultant for Lawrence A. Bell III in Bell's 1999 mayoral campaign, Henson organized the disruption of a rally at which prominent city politicians endorsed candidate Martin O'Malley. Henson brought 50 chanting, placard-waving Bell supporters to War Memorial Plaza, drowning out some of the endorsements.

Last fall, city state's attorney candidate Warren A. Brown dropped out of the race after Henson, campaign manager for candidate Lisa Joi Stancil, dug up details about Brown's private life.

In private, Bengur's friends question the decision to hire Henson. Bengur says he was aware that the consultant had a checkered reputation, but that when they sat down to discuss the race, Henson laid out step by step how he could win the election.

"It was very impressive," Bengur says.

Bengur was born in Montgomery County, lived overseas for several years and then went to high school in Washington. While an English major at Princeton, he says, he was inspired by the notion that government could improve people's lives.

Aside from a stint at Cambridge University in England, where he earned a graduate degree in criminology, Bengur spent a dozen years after college working for state governments in New England, first in juvenile justice and later in energy policy.

Bengur says he became interested in business, and out of a desire to try something new and make a good living for his family, took a job with Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. and moved to Baltimore.

In 1991, he and Charles Bryan, a fellow Alex. Brown alum, founded an investment firm, Bengur Bryan & Co., which works with clients that are too small for traditional investment banks.

Through it all, Bengur talked about getting into politics, Bryan says.

"It's something he's always wanted to do, and he feels like he's got a shot at it with the open seat," Bryan says. "He'll be an excellent congressman. He's very intelligent, very caring and a very thoughtful person."

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