Rasmussen camp finding race tougher than expected

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Chris Lefteris spends his days installing floors in taverns and his nights delivering pizzas in Essex, a job he keeps to make money for a new pickup truck.

He admits he hasn't closely followed local politics, but what little he's heard about Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen he doesn't like.

"He's the guy who put in that container tax that raised the price of beer," said Mr. Lefteris. "Around here that's a big issue."

This is Essex, a traditionally blue-collar Democratic stronghold, the place where Mr. Rasmussen was born and went to high school. It is the center of the legislative district he represented for three terms in the Maryland General Assembly.

If there is any single community in sprawling Baltimore County where Mr. Rasmussen should be on solid political ground, it is here.

Yet, a visitor to Essex who interviewed a dozen people at random found opinions evenly split about Mr. Rasmussen and his four years in office.

"I think a lot of people will go for him, but there'll be a lot of people who'll go against him," said Tony Liberatore, 51, owner of Uncle Eddie's restaurant and a Rasmussen supporter.

"Some people will blame him for things, whether they are his fault ornot."

Political strategists -- both Democratic and Republican -- say that while Mr. Rasmussen is still a front-runner in his race against GOP challenger Roger B. Hayden, he faces a much tougher contest than anyone expected.

From the taverns of Dundalk to the farms in Sparks, elected officials, campaign workers and volunteers say even though he has more money and name recognition, Mr. Rasmussen must overcome deeplyimprinted negative images among many voters.

"There's a very strong rebellion out there among the voters, a rebellion against the incumbents, and I think we saw it in the primary," said Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, Baltimore County'smost visible Republican office holder.

They point to anti-incumbent sentiment in the primary that saw Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer upset, to concerns about growth that swept one 16-year Baltimore County councilman out, and to anger over property taxes that defeated another.

In the race for County Council in Dundalk, property taxes turned out to be a key issue. Democratic challenger Donald Mason campaigned as leader of a protest movement with the slogan "Taxmussen" -- and beat the incumbent by better than 2-1.

Taxes promise to be just as hot an issue in the general election, now that the state Court of Appeals has cleared the way for a vote on a ballot question that would limit future increases in property tax revenues to 2 percent a year.

Aware of the challenge facing him, Mr. Rasmussen has taken the offensive.

He has hired the Baltimore advertising firm of Trahan, Burden and Charles to come up with a blitz of television commercials that will air in October, launched a $40,000 package of advertisements on area radio stations and is planning a major fund-raiser this month that will add to the $730,000 war chest accumulated over the past four years.

"We wouldn't be doing those things if we didn't have a race," said Robert M. Infussi Sr., Mr. Rasmussen's campaign manager. "We haven't gotten our message out because we didn't have a race in the primary. But now that's going to change."

Mr. Infussi said the campaign's most recent poll, conducted in March by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia, showed that Mr. Rasmussen's name is recognized by roughly 95 percent of the county's registered voters and that he has an approval rating of "somewhere around 58 to 60 percent."

Republican strategists say although they have no polling results to dispute that, their surveys of the electorate make those figures difficult to accept.

"Dennis has epitomized big spending on the part of government, and I think people all over the county are catching on to that," said Richard D. Bennett, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Party.

By all accounts, the Republicans face an uphill battle.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by 238,050 to 89,385 in Baltimore County. Only one Republican -- Spiro T. Agnew -- has been elected Baltimore county executive since the post was created in 1957.

Mr. Bennett acknowledged that for Mr. Hayden to have a chance, he needs to raise a lot more than the $15,000 in his campaign coffers.

"We've got to get the message out and, at this point, we need to raise money," he said.

Mr. Hayden said his campaign has a target of raising $100,000 and will include radio and possibly television ads.

But he said his strategy depends more on his own shoe leather and a vast network of on volunteers than on money.

"I think people will be turned off by the big money in the race," said Mr. Hayden. "This is a race that should be decided on the issues, not one anyone should try to buy."

Mr. Hayden, a graduate of Sparrows Point High School and former president of the county school board, recalls how when he talked with voters during the primary, "you could close your eyes and you couldn't tell the difference" between concerns voters raised in Dundalk and in Catonsville.

"They all said, 'What's happening to our money?. What are they spending it on?' " said Mr. Hayden, 45, a former vice president at Eastern Stainless Corp., who is on leave from his current job as vice president at George's Transfer Inc., a Parkton trucking company.

Mr. Hayden has pinned Mr. Rasmussen with the label of big spender and says the executive has allowed too much development at the cost of older communities and has lost touch with the working people.

"They really haven't been looking at where the tax dollars go. They haven't been accessible. They've gotten arrogant," said Mr. Hayden.

Mr. Hayden said he would turn back a pay raise -- increasing the executive's salary from $73,000 to $85,000 in January -- and would look closely at the executive's $585,000 Office of Communications, which handles public relations.

Mr. Rasmussen counters that such criticism is meant to deflect attention from the main issues -- his performance in office and how efficiently the county serves taxpayers.

The salary increase was approved by the County Council to bring the executive's increase in line with the average increases given other employees over the past several years, he said.

The communications office was put together largely with positions transferred from other departments, he said.

Mr. Rasmussen said that when adjusted for inflation, his budget increases have been limited to 3.2 percent annually. He says that he was Maryland's first county executive to initiate a 4 percent limit on property tax assessment increases and to lobby in Annapolis to shift the tax burden from property to income.

Mr. Rasmussen said a major problem is that budget cuts enacted by the Reagan administration have come home to roost.

"It's meant we've had to build our own schools, build our own jails. We have all these mandates to comply with, without any money to do them," he said.

The beverage container tax that may be hurting him in Essex is a prime example of the result, he said.

The General Assembly required subdivisions of more than 150,000 to reduce solid waste by 20 percent over four years.

But while the program will cost the county $14 million, the state prohibited counties from enacting specific taxes to fund it.

To cushion the blow, Mr. Rasmussen proposed a temporary 2-cent tax on all beverage containers of 16 ounces or less and 4 cents on larger containers. The tax has raised $4 million in seven months and is expected to net another $3.5 million before it expires Dec. 31.

But the container tax proved unpopular with the tavern owners, beer distributors and others in the beverage industry, who said it unfairly targeted them and would cut into their revenues.

"You cannot serve in this office for four years and not alienate some people," Mr. Rasmussen said.

Donald P. Hutchinson, who served two terms as Baltimore County executive, heartily agreed.

"What makes that job so difficult is that you face different problems in each part of the county," he said. "Everybody gets mad at you for different reasons."

He said a key to the race will be which candidate is able to use television most effectively.

"They can't just show [Mr. Rasmussen] out there shaking hands and smiling; he has to come out and deal with what people are saying," Mr. Hutchinson said.

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