Tight race in 2nd means long days on trail

Ruppersberger, Bentley try to win over voters in district's far reaches

October 24, 2002|By Andrew A. Green and Jonathan D. Rockoff | Andrew A. Green and Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

With just 13 days to go before the election, Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Republican Helen Delich Bentley, locked in one of the tightest congressional races in the nation, were campaigning in the 2nd District from morning to night yesterday, their activities ranging from lunch with a Cabinet secretary to replanting stolen campaign signs.

For Ruppersberger, the day began at 8:09 a.m. as he was chauffeured in a forest green Lexus sedan to a fast-food restaurant, then a bagel shop and finally a diner -- all in Republican territory like Lutherville and Timonium. That's where Ruppersberger, munching on a bacon-and-egg biscuit between morning stops, wants to take Republican votes away from Bentley.

At the Nautilus Diner in Timonium, the Baltimore County executive strode to a table where an old fraternity brother from the University of Maryland sipped coffee with a friend. "Anything I can do to help?" asked John Mezzullo, a financial planner from Lutherville.

"Just don't vote for Bentley," Ruppersberger said.

At his last stop, at Panera Bread in Timonium, Ruppersberger reached out a hand to Ruth Elmore, 66, a shipping and billing clerk who has had trouble getting health coverage because she has a pacemaker.

"Are you going to look out for old people?" she asked Ruppersberger over a bagel and coffee.

"Aw, c'mon, you know my issue is prescription drugs," Ruppersberger said. The candidate said he would push for a prescription drug plan for seniors. "So, yes, I will take care of seniors," he said.

At quarter to 10, Bentley and staff were on their way to an endorsement rally by Citizens for Property Rights, the group that successfully fought Ruppersberger's condemnation and revitalization plan, known as Senate Bill 509, two years ago.

They were running a bit late, didn't know quite where they were going and only had a map of Montgomery County.

They arrived a few minutes past 10 at the Commodore Hall bar and catering business in Essex, a headquarters for the anti-SB 509 crowd.

"You guys were the hub of the battle," Bentley said, shaking her fist in the air, "and you had support in many, many places."

One of the women there, Jigantree Pasram, a mother of eight and grandmother of 13, pointed Bentley to the picture of her six-bedroom, five-bath home that was on the list.

"We alone can give you 18 votes," she said.

"Make sure they all vote twice," Bentley replied.

After the morning restaurant visits, Ruppersberger met with staff to plan strategy. By late morning, though, he was back on the campaign trail, this time in Lutherville replacing a campaign sign in a supporter's front yard.

Dozens of signs have disappeared recently, Ruppersberger said.

"I'm not blaming my opponent for this," he said, but the disappearances have riled volunteers whose devotion is essential for a successful campaign.

So at 11:11 a.m., Ruppersberger, in a green polo shirt with "Go Dutch!" embroidered above the heart, walked across the supporter's lawn with a large green sign.

"Where's the best place for this?" he asked of two trailing staffers.

They eyed different sites, finally settling on a location easily seen by motorists passing on Seminary Avenue. Ruppersberger began pushing the plastic sign into the front lawn.

A short while later, a supporter from the neighborhood drove up. "Put some more in my front yard," she said, requesting campaign signs to replace ones that she said had been stolen.

The woman kissed Ruppersberger on the cheek, leaving traces of red lipstick.

At lunchtime, after shaking a few hands at an Essex supermarket, Bentley headed over to Squire's Restaurant in Dundalk, where she gathered a round- table of 23 senior citizens, mostly old friends of hers, for a discussion with another old friend, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

The attendees grilled the Cabinet secretary about prescription drug costs, the quality of generic drugs and problems with their pensions.

"I'm on five prescription drugs, I've got an inflamed sciatic nerve, somebody stole my car and my house burned down," Mary Pyles, 82, of Dundalk told Thompson. "What I want to know is, can I move in with you?"

Thompson laughed and said the best thing she could do would be to elect Bentley.

Pyles looked over at Bentley. "Truthfully, Helen, I have not talked to one person yet who says they're not going to vote for you," she said. "You're going to take Dundalk by storm. You're a giant of a lady, and I think you're going to make it."

That brightened Thompson right up.

"When can you move in?" he asked. "Are you going to help with the rent?"

In the afternoon, Ruppersberger was running late. After hours of fund-raising calls and interviews, he pulled into the parking lot of a South Baltimore shopping center.

Ruppersberger had visited the Cherry Hill neighborhood five times. He sees its voters as natural supporters whose ballots could provide the thin margin of victory in a tight race.

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