Ruppersberger finds his way in Congress

Freshman: New 2nd District representative gains favor with colleagues in the early going.

January 08, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger was sworn in as the new congressman from Maryland's 2nd District yesterday, and though he spent the last 17 years in local government, his new colleagues say this little fish is swimming just fine in the big pond.

Case in point: Shortly after the November election, Ruppersberger was in a meeting of the freshman Democratic caucus when a disagreement broke out over who should be elected the class president, Denise Majette of Georgia or Frank Ballance of North Carolina. No clear consensus developed either way, and the matter was headed to a vote.

"It had been a long day for everybody," Ballance said. "We didn't want to make this thing a big deal."

To Ruppersberger, 57, a politician fresh from two terms as Baltimore County executive who has been preaching the value of teamwork since his days as a star athlete at City College, voting seemed like a bad idea. After all, they were the freshmen in the minority party in the House of Representatives, the lowest of the low, and, he said, if they wanted to get anything done at all, they would need to stick together.

So, he suggested the two candidates split the job, one taking the first year, the other taking the second.

They went for it.

But how to decide who gets the first year and which the second?

Ruppersberger grabbed a more veteran member, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, and had her flip a coin.

"What could be more democratic than that?" Ballance said. "Call it in the air."

"I just thought that way, we can all pull together as a class without any bitterness," Ruppersberger said.

Ballance won the coin toss, but Ruppersberger may have gotten the best of the deal.

When the time came to select a freshman to serve on the Steering Committee, the group that decides which members get seats on which committees, Ruppersberger got the slot.

"A lot of freshmen would die to get on Steering," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland's 7th District. "I've got to ask him what his secret is."

Cummings won't have far to go to ask - Ruppersberger's new office is right next door. His staff doesn't have any office supplies just yet, but thanks to the anthrax scare in the building last year, they do have three rooms full of brand-new furniture.

With a district so close to Washington, Ruppersberger's open house celebrating his swearing-in was a wall-to-wall affair for most of the day, with hundreds of his constituents and friends spilling out into the hallway.

"I'm just really honored that the voters of the 2nd District would have enough confidence in my abilities to put me in a position of trust in Congress," Ruppersberger said. "The more you're here, the more you realize the history and tradition."

Ruppersberger's district includes about half of Baltimore County and parts of Anne Arundel and Harford counties and Baltimore City.

The veterans in Maryland's delegation said they expect Ruppersberger will do well. His time in local government has given him a good sense of what his constituents are interested in, as well as expertise in land use, schools, transportation and other matters that many of his colleagues lack, members of Maryland's delegation said.

"He will bring very meaningful expertise to the conference," said Cummings, who became chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus this term. "A lot of what you get done here is people's perception of you and whether you are significant. I think that in and of itself makes Dutch a very significant person here."

Maryland's senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Democrats, stopped by Ruppersberger's open house yesterday afternoon to pay their respects. Both said they believe Ruppersberger's people skills and his grounding with his constituents will serve him well.

"I've always thought since he first started thinking about it that he would find it an environment in which he could work very effectively," Sarbanes said.

"He has a knack for politics because he has a knack for people," Mikulski said. "He has experience in the legislature - this isn't quite as pal-sy as the Maryland General Assembly, but it's still his kind of place."

Mikulski had a few pieces of advice: Don't eat the sushi, stay away from embassy cocktail parties, work hard, try for teamwork, but "as Harry Truman said, you've got to be ready to give 'em hell sometimes."

So far, Ballance said, Ruppersberger is having no trouble winning friends and influencing people. In addition to a seat on the Steering Committee, he's also been named an assistant whip.

"Dutch is a friendly guy. You know people like him - he comes across very well," Ballance said.

The only danger, Cummings said, is that Ruppersberger might be too accustomed to life as the all-powerful county executive, a job in which he could make things happen with a single phone call.

"I just hope he doesn't get frustrated," Cummings said.

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