Smith (yawn) vs. (snore) Riley

Executive: The campaign to succeed Dutch Ruppersberger is shaping up to be among the least contested in Baltimore County history.

April 21, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

THE CAMPAIGN to succeed Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is looking to be one of the greatest yawns in Maryland political history.

State Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Fullerton Democrat and the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, ended a year of speculation last week by saying he would not run, making him the latest in a string of high-profile politicians to take a pass this year.

The race started early - Republican Douglas B. Riley, a lawyer and former councilman from Towson, declared more than a year ago, and Democrat James T. Smith Jr., a former councilman and Circuit Court judge from Reisterstown, started running in September. Since then, other potential contenders have dropped out one at a time.

Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, the councilman from Catonsville? Out. Councilman Kevin Kamenetz from Pikesville? Out. Catonsville's Del. Thomas E. Dewberry? Out.

And now Bromwell, who many assumed would be the instant front-runner if he entered the race, has said he is sitting this one out.

That leaves the distinct possibility the race will be among the least contested ever seen in the county, at a time when the jurisdiction will have to deal with stagnant or shrinking revenues, crumbling neighborhoods and the slow creep of social problems.

A handful of other candidates could enter the race, but none looks likely to do so.

Del. James F. Ports Jr., a Perry Hall Republican who debated Ruppserberger two years ago over east-side revitalization, is openly toying with the race. But he has said his political future is entirely up to the strategy of Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s gubernatorial campaign. This suggests that if a divisive Republican primary between Ports and Riley can be avoided, it will be.

Two Democrats' names still pop up: Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, also of Fullerton, and former county executive Theodore G. Venetoulis.

The politician whose fortunes were most affected by Bromwell's decision was Bartenfelder. The two men are from the same part of the county and have the same political base, so Bartenfelder would never have challenged the senator.

But even with Bromwell out, Bartenfelder seems ambivalent about the county executive race, saying he's too busy dealing with the county budget, a process more arduous than regular council work but hardly a Herculean task. More likely, he's waiting to see whether Bromwell retires from politics and leaves his Senate seat open, as the senator's friends have said he will do.

Venetoulis, who was county executive from 1974 to 1978, has been the subject of rumors for months. But he is 67 years old and recently adopted a baby, and he frequently comes close to saying he won't run. Still, he seems flattered by the attention.

Bromwell - expected to leave the Senate for a job as head of the state Injured Workers Insurance Fund - is partly responsible for the lack of competition this year. Whether he intended it, an effect of his lengthy indecision was that other candidates, most notably Bartenfelder, sat out waiting for a sign. Meanwhile, Smith and Riley were free to line up support.

But the bigger factor was Ruppersberger, or, more specifically, his wife, Kay. From the beginning, Bromwell said he was reluctant to run for executive because the job is so intensive that it would take too much time away from his family. As he pondered his decision, his wife talked to Ruppersberger's wife. She, apparently, was not encouraging.

"When you're in this job," the county executive said, "you're involved with everything all the time, anytime. If a police officer shoots somebody, I'll get a call at 3 o'clock in the morning. If there's a pothole and a complaining person calls, they demand to see you. ... It's just the type of job that really negatively impacts on your family."

Kamenetz announced that he wouldn't run for county executive shortly after his first child was born nine months ago. Dewberry said he spent a year thinking about running but concluded it would take too much time away from his wife and children. "It requires a lot of time. Not that I wouldn't want to do that - I have the energy and would love to do that -but I have taken a lot of time away from my personal life over the last 13 years," he said.

In the past, candidates have come out of the woodwork late in the campaign season and won. In 1974, Venetoulis, an upstart reformer, had no elected experience and didn't declare he was running until June. In 1990, Roger B. Hayden was a political novice, didn't declare until the summer and unseated incumbent Dennis F. Rasmussen.

But, in 1990, Hayden was part of a massive taxpayer revolt that unseated nearly every elected official in the county. In 1974, Venetoulis was elected in the wake of the corruption scandal that compelled one former Baltimore County executive, Spiro T. Agnew, to resign from the vice presidency of the United States and eventually sent Dale Anderson, his successor as county executive, to prison.

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