Ruppersberger shows he can play tough, too Analysis: The Baltimore County executive has unveiled a more aggressive side of his personality in the HUD controversy.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, the overweight, over-eager Baltimore County executive, has a reputation as a man quick with a smile and a handshake, a politician who uses his personal charm to quietly solve problems.

But in recent weeks, Mr. Ruppersberger has shown other traits -- a toughness and a pride on display for the first time since he became county executive a year ago.

That aggressive, in-your-face competitiveness has been there since his high school football and lacrosse days at Baltimore's City College, and longtime friends and colleagues aren't surprised to see it now.

They're not surprised by his campaign to block a plan that would move hundreds of poor black families from inner-city public housing to the suburbs -- a campaign that continues even after the county won significant concessions this week.

Not county State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, who has always known the harder side of the normally amiable Mr. Ruppersberger.

"He was wellsuited to be a trial lawyer, because he was willing to go toe to toe," she said yesterday, recalling the nine years he worked for her as a prosecutor. "I would not be surprised, if Dutch believed in something, that he would be aggressive."

That pride and friendliness were sorely tested when the plan -- designed to settle a housing desegregation suit brought by civil libertarians against the city -- became public in October.

Mr. Ruppersberger was trying to get more federal money for Baltimore to help pay for relocating public housing tenants within the city after the aging, decayed public housing high-rises are demolished. And he felt that his goodwill effort was betrayed by the sudden announcement that the city would be exporting roughly 4,000 public housing residents to the suburbs.

Stunned at first, unable to believe he had been blindsided on such a politically sensitive issue, he reacted strongly.

"It takes a lot to push Dutch to that point," aide Jennifer Macek said. "He will stand up for what he thinks is the right thing to do."

Of course, Mr. Ruppersberger's outspoken opposition was popular in a county sensitive to growing poverty and other problems found in sections of Baltimore.

But that stand also illustrated a role change from his nine years as a county councilman and a crafter of compromises -- a change that he is keenly aware of.

"When I am county executive, my job is to lead and manage the county. I'm not going to compromise away basic principles," he said, when asked why he's continuing the fight.

His hard-charging campaign against the proposed settlement negotiated by Baltimore, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development helped trigger the concessions announced late Tuesday.

Still, he passed up the chance to accept the concessions and declare victory.

Why? Because, again, he felt blindsided.

HUD announced an agreement with the city and the ACLU on the revised terms and faxed it to the county Tuesday afternoon. But Mr. Ruppersberger had not seen the terms -- which county officials believed was merely the latest negotiating stance from HUD -- and once more felt left out.

He was confronted by questions about the new terms as he emerged from a closed-door legal briefing with the County Council on the negotiations with HUD.

His response was a hurried request for yet another meeting with HUD officials in Washington, and a stubborn refusal to give up.

Michael H. Davis, a top Ruppersberger aide, said the county wants the best agreement possible, and there's still room for negotiation as long as a judge hasn't declared the suit settled.

Despite the continuing talks -- the county attorney met with HUD officials Wednesday -- Mr. Ruppersberger has already achieved much of what he wanted.

Instead of having to guess how many of the plan's 1,342 public housing families would move to Baltimore County with federal rent subsidies, Mr. Ruppersberger got HUD to agree to a 360-family cap over six years.

He also has elicited guarantees that there will be more federal money for training and counseling, as well as a more stringent process for selecting and monitoring families. HUD has agreed to include programs encouraging the families to work toward home ownership, and a promise that no apartment complex will have more than 20 percent of its units occupied by families with Section 8 rent subsidies.

In addition, the five counties around Baltimore will get 500 more Section 8 certificates for their own low-income residents on waiting lists.

Mr. Ruppersberger is still trying to talk HUD officials into funding an expansion of a new program that provides incentives for poor families to work toward independence and homeownership.

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