Ruppersberger likes being in driver's seat

Democrat: But the 2nd District candidate's take-charge, get-it-in-gear spirit could hit a speed bump in Congress.

Election 2002

October 20, 2002|By Andrew A.Green | Andrew A.Green,SUN STAFF

A week after declaring his run for Congress, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger was back doing what he has loved most as county executive.

The kind of politician who has never seen a ribbon-cutting he didn't like, Ruppersberger was in Woodlawn for the kickoff of a $700,000 watershed rehabilitation program where he was able to give a speech, joke with people and, best of all, put on a hard hat.

The construction workers set up a Bobcat, a sort of mini-bulldozer, for the kind of photo-op in which a normal politician gets in, drives a few feet and smiles for the cameras. Not Ruppersberger. He put it in gear, lowered the blade and drove 30 yards down the embankment, tearing underbrush out of the way. Then he turned around and took another pass.

He jumped out and asked, "You think they let you drive a Bobcat in Congress?"

His environmental director, David A.C. Carroll, a former congressional staffer, shot back: "Not when you're a freshman, they don't."

Ruppersberger, 56, is looking to make the biggest transition in his 17-year career as an elected official, going from being the man with almost total authority to run a county of 750,000 people to being one vote out of 435 in the U.S. House of Representatives, a freshman in a party that might well remain in the minority.

Those who have watched him during the past eight years say he has a personality ideally suited to the office of county executive - he's the guy who likes to get things done, to fix the problems and seal the deal. Those traits have sometimes gotten him into big political trouble, but many in county government said they have also made him one of the best executives the county has had.

They also might make him hate being a congressman, at least at first.

"He loves politics, and he'll acclimate himself to it, but it's difficult," said Theodore G. Venetoulis, the Democratic county executive from 1974 to 1978. "As executive, you do all the talking, and people listen and have to do something. In Congress, you do all the talking you want, and nobody has to pay attention."

Donald P. Hutchinson, a Democrat who was county executive from 1978 to 1986, has called the House of Representatives "a lateral move at best."

What makes Dutch run?

So why is Ruppersberger running?

The short answer is because he didn't think he could beat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the gubernatorial primary. Gov. Parris N. Glendening drew a favorable district for him, and party leaders convinced Ruppersberger that he could help Democrats regain control of Congress by running for the seat representing Maryland's 2nd District, which contains parts of Baltimore, Harford and Anne Arundel counties as well part of Baltimore City.

Ruppersberger said his perspective as someone who knows what federal policy decisions look like from the local level would be valuable in Congress.

"I want to bring our communities to Congress and Congress to our communities," he said.

But what really keeps him from taking his $89,000-a-year pension and retiring to his patch of Ocean City sand, those who know him said, is that he could just as easily give up politics as breathing.

"That's his oxygen line," said Robert J. Barrett, Ruppersberger's longtime top aide. "He may act like there's life after politics. I don't buy it. He loves helping people, believe me."

Since his days as captain of the Leith Walk Elementary School safety patrol, Ruppersberger has built the All-American political story: star athlete at City College high school, married to his prom date, earned a law degree and became a prosecuting attorney.

To this day, Ruppersberger compares political campaigns to athletic contests, and he approaches the job of county executive in the same vigorous, physical way.

The hallmarks of his first term were school renovations of unparalleled scope, repaving of hundreds of miles of alleys and putting more police on the streets and teachers in the classrooms.

Barrett said Ruppersberger's do-it-now spirit reminds him of William Donald Schaefer from his days as mayor and governor.

"He's very focused on something that is before him. He gets a call, he's got a project, got an issue, get it done. Have a short meeting, get it done. He wants to see it accomplished, get it done by the end of the day," Barrett said.

Deal maker

Ruppersberger's colleagues said his gregarious personality is one of his strongest political traits. He likes to bring people into his office and pull together a deal.

Legislators, even those who are ordinarily critical of him, said Ruppersberger's ability to unite the county delegation behind a single agenda helped Baltimore County get far more money for schools and other projects than it would have otherwise.

But all those tendencies that made him successful also contributed to his two biggest political black eyes: Senate Bill 509, his property condemnation and community revitalization initiative, and the decision to expand the Towson jail.

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