Campaign questions don't wait for neat answers

April 28, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE TELEPHONE call salvages the moment. As Oz Bengur settles into the noisy lunchtime crowd, the guy on his right wants to know why marijuana can't be legalized. The guy is 71 years old. The guy on Bengur's left is 72 and wants to talk about gambling. He wants more of it. On the telephone, the U.S. Marines have landed. And even the Marines might not be enough.

"Hey, Noah," Bengur hollers into the telephone. "Happy birthday. I'm sitting here with people who think I arranged this."

Noah is Oz Bengur's son. The son, 23, is a U.S. Marine who wants to be a pilot. The father, 53, is an investment banker who wants to be a U.S. congressman. He runs against C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who will officially declare his intentions tomorrow after eight productive years as Baltimore County executive.

To challenge Ruppersberger in the Democratic primary - to challenge his record and his name recognition - some believe Oz Bengur will need an entire platoon of Marines.

In fact, he might need them to get through lunch. In his early days on the political trail, Bengur, a graduate of Princeton who has already spent $290,000 on his campaign, has stressed his interest in urban sprawl, in schools and in health care reform.

But, at this lunch gathering the other day at Sabatino's in Little Italy, he's getting an earful about marijuana, and about legalized gambling, which arrives out of places such as New York's City Hall and the racetracks of Delaware and West Virginia.

"You take Mayor Bloomberg," says the 71-year-old on Bengur's right. He means New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has admitted smoking some marijuana in his lifetime, and inhaling, and enjoying it. Heads around the table nod affirmatively. So does Bengur's. They all know the story.

"We're putting people in jail for that now," says the 71-year-old, a lean, bearded, independent laborer. "And it's less danger than alcohol. I'm 71 years old and smoking all my life, and doing fine. And we're equating it with hard drugs and putting kids in jail and tying up cops for nothing."

"I agree," says Bengur.

"Am I hearing you correctly?" the 71-year-old says.

"Let me get back to you," says Bengur. "I don't think we should put people away for that. But I don't want to send the wrong message."

He is new at this. He doesn't want to jump off the starting blocks as The Man Who Endorsed Marijuana - especially since he arrived here without thinking about the damned issue.

Or, for that matter, the gambling issue. But now, on Bengur's left, comes the message from the 72-year-old. He says he goes to the Maryland racetracks and notices that the industry's wheezing worse than the horses. Then he reads the newspaper and notices the slot machines have restored life to the tracks in Delaware and West Virginia. He wants to know why there are no slots at the tracks here.

"I don't know," Bengur says. "I don't think they're so bad. I think it's fine. What's the big deal? We have people buying lottery tickets every day."

Just as life is what happens while we're making other plans, sometimes campaign questions arrive while candidates are formulating other answers. Bengur was not expecting such topics. But - welcome to politics.

He figured he'd talk about urban sprawl. He's against it. He likes neighborhoods where people can walk to schools and shops. He figured he'd talk about schools. He thinks they should be smaller. He figured he'd talk about health care reform. He thinks drugs are too expensive for the elderly.

All of these are fine, respectable positions, and not exactly earth-shaking, nor at great variance from Ruppersberger's positions. And, in the coming months, they might be obscured by another issue - Bengur's campaign consultant, Julius Henson.

Henson's an interesting guy: smart, savvy, earnestly desirous of being a mainstream political player. But he has a history of getting in his own way. Henson, backing Lawrence Bell, organized that ugly War Memorial Plaza fiasco in the last mayoral race. He drove attorney Warren Brown out of the state's attorney's race by digging up embarrassing details about Brown's personal life.

And now the king of bare-knuckle politics has climbed into bed with an investment banker from Princeton?

"He was recommended by people I respect," Bengur says. Which people? "I don't want to say," Bengur says. "It's my candidacy, and I'll decide. I know he's controversial. He's also very good. I needed a guy who's been through it before. I'm not frightened by having a tough political operative."

Politics, he says, "is a noble thing. I think people should serve." He believes it firmly enough that he's already put up $290,000 of his own money. It isn't quite Bloomberg's millions in New York, but it's a lot.

"I would never ask people to invest in anything without putting my own money in," says Bengur. "They're making an investment in me. It's important to show that I have faith in me."

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