Hayden win creates new playing field

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen knew he was in trouble the weekend before the election when he went door to door in his native Essex and saw a campaign sign for his Republican opponent, Roger B. Hayden, on the lawn of an old friend's home.

When he knocked on the friend's door, he was assured that the sign meant nothing and that he had the man's vote. Now, he is not so sure.

But even with such indicators, Mr. Rasmussen failed to grasp how deeply the vein of dissatisfaction was running against him.

Baltimore County voters, caught up in an anti-incumbent mood with the rest of the nation, voted overwhelmingly to throw out not only their county executive, but three of the seven Democrats on the County Council, an unprecedented number. (Two other incumbent Democratic council members had been defeated in September's primary.)

Mr. Rasmussen garnered only 38 percent of the vote -- a stunning loss that was instrumental in dramatically altering the picture of politics in Democratic-controlled Baltimore County.

While incumbents were voted out across the state, nowhere did voters throw out as many county officials as in Baltimore County.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Ted Venetoulis, Baltimore County executive from 1974 to 1978. "He's a sitting incumbent with no scandal involved, and he gets trounced."

This was not so much an election between two candidates as a plebiscite on Mr. Rasmussen's management style.

It was a vote focused not on the performance of the county government, but on the images connected with an executive who liked monogrammed shirts and used a Lincoln Town Car.

Roger Hayden ran a low-key campaign, for the most part letting subordinates and other GOP challengers promote the idea that Mr. Rasmussen was a big spender.

Outfunded 10-to-1 and largely unknown, the former county school board president put Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, on the radio to endorse him, declined to call for specific programs and campaigned on the fuzzy, apple-pie theme of fiscal responsibility.

The strategy worked. Mr. Hayden won despite a 2 1/2 -to-1 Democratic registration advantage. It means he will be only the second Republican executive in the county ever and will enjoy support from the three Republican council members who rode in on his coattails.

"It's a whole new playing field right now," said Douglas Riley, who defeated Barbara F. Bachur, a three-term incumbent, to become one of the GOP council members-elect.

What it means is a more fiscally conservative government, one more friendly to business interests, more likely to have open dissent and more likely to avoid expensive new programs.

By contrast, Mr. Rasmussen in his four-year term opened four senior centers, hired more than 100 additional police officers and firefighters and created an environmental agency that cleaned up dozens of streams and waterways. He believed that if he provided services, people would respond at the polls. He assumed that to win re-election he needed to work hard as an administrator and that he could take care of his political image in the final weeks before the election.

He turned out to be dead wrong.

"We paved every street in Edgemere, and they still came out against me," Mr. Rasmussen said.

Voters not only didn't credit him with paving their streets -- their tax money paid for it -- but they went to the polls angry with him.

"I'm sick of Rasmussen," said William Harrison, a 73-year-old retiree, after he voted against the executive Tuesday at Randallstown Senior High School.

People were turned off because Mr. Rasmussen seemed seduced by the comforts of office, they felt he had lost touch with his employees, and they were just unhappy with government at all levels.

The result is that Republicans will wield some power in Towson for the first time in more than a decade.

All three of the new Republicans, Mr. Riley, Berchie Lee Manley and William A. Howard, are fiscal conservatives, as is Don Mason, the Dundalk Democrat. Councilman Melvin Mintz, who represents the staunchly Democratic communities of Pikesville and Randallstown, is a former Republican, and Council Chairman C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger represents a largely Republican district in northern Baltimore County.

Mr. Riley was widely seen as filling the role of council maverick before the election. His name is now being bandied about in Towson as a possible council chairman -- although he said Mr. Ruppersberger should probably retain the position for another year.

Mr. Venetoulis, who faced criticism similar to that against Mr. Rasmussen of being too glamorous in 1978 when, as executive, he made an unsuccessful run for governor, said complaints about growth and taxes hurt the Democrats. But it was the anti-incumbent sentiment that spelled their doom, he said.

"There's a certain anger, a meanness and a bitterness out there that is incomprehensible," Mr. Venetoulis said.

In hindsight, Mr. Rasmussen took risks that may have been political blunders.

Facing a tight budget, he denied full cost-of-living pay increases in an election year to what could have been his most vocal support group -- the 20,000 county teachers and government workers.

Faced with increasing costs to enact state-mandated recycling programs, he also called for a yearlong tax on beverage containers, a one-time levy that was expected to raise $8 million. But it cost him politically, and he later acknowledged it was a mistake.

Surely, signals that Mr. Rasmussen was in trouble were on the horizon long before Nov. 6:

* There were the 10,000 signatures collected on a petition to restrict property tax revenue increases to 2 percent a year, a drive prompted by perceptions that Mr.Rasmussen was a big spender.

* There were taxpayer protest meetings, where people left their comfortable homes in northern Baltimore County by the hundreds to complain about rising property taxes.

* There were the primary election results, in which two Democratic County Council members lost to political newcomers, including a Dundalk tax protester who trounced the incumbent councilman by using the phrase "Taxmussen" as a rallying cry.

In spite of such indicators, few people who knew Mr. Rasmussen's track record saw him losing by as huge a margin as he did.

He swept into office in 1986 having never lost an election, garnering 82 percent of the vote in a race with Robert T. Petr, an unknown Republican. Four years later, he was defeated by another unknown Republican; it was Mr. Hayden's first run for office.

In Essex -- a community that Mr. Rasmussen represented for three terms in the General Assembly -- he failed to carry a single precinct.

"I think there was an anti-incumbent vote, but it was also a case of Roger Hayden getting his name around so people knew he was a credible candidate. They knew they wouldn't be voting for a clown," said Mr. Riley, a Towson lawyer.

The success of the new administration will depend on how well Mr. Hayden is at managing and politics. He must manage a budget in tight times and politick both Democrats and Republicans on the council to accomplish his goals.

While the council members are pledging to work with the executive and with each other, many familiar with the council say the new faces will mean more fractious times, as the government struggles to offer services and fulfill a mandate from voters to cut costs.

"It could end up pitting the firefighters against police, the police against the teachers or the teachers against the white-collar unions," said Mr. Venetoulis, who had two Republicans on his council in the 1970s. "I think there's going to be some real fighting over the dollars that are there."

Dennis O'Brien is a reporter in The Sun's Baltimore County Bureau.

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