This might be the year for Ruppersberger, whether he vies for governor now or waits


WITH $500,000 in the bank, no foe in sight and broad popularity, why did Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger accumulate another $300,000 at a fund-raiser last week?

The answer: He's preparing a run for governor.

But will he take the plunge this year or in 2002?

Conventional wisdom says he'd be a fool to do it this year, that he's a slam-dunk to win re-election in Baltimore County. It's a wonderful job, and he seems to enjoy it.

Besides, why give up a sure thing to take on a sitting governor in a primary? It defies history.

Conventional wisdom holds that 2002 is the year for either Mr. Ruppersberger or Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan to run statewide.

But conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong. After all, you rarely get what you want by sitting back and waiting.

Look at Harry R. Hughes. Had he heeded conventional wisdom, he would not have run for governor, with little money or staff, in 1978. He won in a landslide.

Parris N. Glendening also wouldn't have made it. Conventional wisdom in 1994 held that a county executive couldn't defeat a well-known lieutenant governor. But Mr. Glendening easily beat Melvin A. Steinberg.

Cardin's retreat

Now Mr. Glendening, as the incumbent, has conventional wisdom on his side. It was enough to dissuade Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin from running. Perhaps Mr. Ruppersberger, too.

Yet, 2002 may not be the golden year for Mr. Ruppersberger, either. His best shot for state office may come this fall.

In politics, four years is a lifetime. What looked like an ideal situation developing in 2002 could turn out to be a calamity.

Here's what could go wrong for Mr. Ruppersberger:

He could find his popularity in Baltimore County slipping. That's the norm for two-term executives. This would dim his chances of becoming governor.

He could find Mr. Duncan emerging as the clear front-runner, based on the growing electoral clout of Montgomery County.

He could wind up facing a tough-to-beat Republican governor, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, in 2002.

Some say Governor Sauerbrey would be a disaster, creating a storm as she imposes conservative ideology on programs.

But if the state's economy keeps booming, Ms. Sauerbrey could prove a very popular governor, with enough money to make deep tax cuts and also impose her conservative fiscal policies without eviscerating programs.

Or a Glendening victory this year could pave the way for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to succeed to Maryland's top office in four years.

Ms. Townsend is building a big staff to boost her visibility. Her LTC warm personality, and Kennedy money, could make her a winner.

Or a re-elected Mr. Glendening could use his contacts (including the considerable leverage of Ms. Townsend's uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat) to get appointed to a Washington Cabinet post. Ms. Townsend would automatically succeed him as governor, then run in 2002 as the favored incumbent.

Any of these outcomes could doom a Ruppersberger 2002 race. That's why it might make more sense to risk it all this year.

At the moment, polls show Mr. Glendening as vulnerable. He could be had in the primary if a popular Democrat with a fat campaign treasury takes him on.

So far, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's bid hasn't caught fire. More troubling to Mr. Glendening is the Sauerbrey threat. If the governor is dogged by ethics charges, he might suffer a humbling defeat, along with lots of other Democratic incumbents.

This scares local leaders such as Mr. Ruppersberger. A Sauerbrey governorship would further weaken Democrats when congressional and legislative boundaries are redrawn. Appointments would go only to Republicans.

A safe bet

All that could happen if Mr. Ruppersberger sits on the sidelines. Yet it would be quite a stretch for him to abandon a safe re-election for a tough race against an entrenched incumbent with a seven-figure campaign treasury.

Over the next two months, Mr. Ruppersberger must weigh his options. If he waits four years, his moment to grab the brass ring may have passed. If he goes for broke now, he might be out of a job before Christmas. It is not a decision for the faint of heart.

L Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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