Renewal bill puts Ports in the limelight


They are whispering things in his ear he never imagined a few months ago.

Run for higher office, they plead. Towson needs you. Annapolis does, too.

For James F. Ports Jr., the 41-year-old state delegate from Perry Hall in Baltimore County, what once looked like a path toward political destruction has turned into a life affirmation.

"I'm very flattered that people are saying, 'Run for county executive.' I have people saying, 'Run for governor,'" said Ports, a Republican. "I'm very flattered that people are responsive to me. But it's not me. It's the issue. I'm having a hard time breaking the two apart."

The issue, of course, is Senate Bill 509.

SB 509, a plan to condemn apartments and small businesses in three county neighborhoods so developers can build upscale shops, houses, restaurants and marinas, is causing fits for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger as it barrels toward a November referendum vote.

Ruppersberger, a Democrat, miscalculated community reaction to the renewal tool that he pushed through the General Assembly this year in a stark display of clout. But Ports, it seems, calculated just right - if by accident - when he thrust himself into the discussion.

It is Ports who helped lead the referendum drive that gathered 44,000 signatures to place SB 509 on the fall ballot. It is Ports who is holding his own with Ruppersberger, the potential gubernatorial candidate with vast government resources at his command, in a series of debates on the plan.

As he is embraced by some, Ports is viewed as a carpetbagger by others in the taverns and crab houses on the county's eastern waterfront.

While he doesn't represent any area where the county could seize property, Ports - a staunch partisan who never strays from the GOP doctrines of lower taxes and smaller government - says the law violates his core beliefs.

"This is a fundamental issue, a sacred part of the Constitution, and Jim [Ports] has given his position a good argument," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a two-time Republican candidate for governor from Sweet Air. "He's a gutsy guy."

However, some say Ports is sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.

Ports "is your basic opportunist," said Del. John S. Arnick, a Dundalk Democrat who supports Ruppersberger's plan. "He saw a large crowd gathering on an issue, and he stepped into the middle of them and began his work."

Sauerbrey, for one, rejects that criticism. The condemnation issue is resonating across the county, she said.

Ports' arguments seemingly have tapped into an underlying voter belief that some county leaders cater more to developers and business interests than to working families.

Not quite 'political suicide'

"When I started this, I knew I was committing political suicide," said Ports. "The last thing a politician wants to do is go against another powerful politician, like the county executive. If you don't think Dutch is going to come after me, you must believe in the tooth fairy."

But as weeks pass, as Ports fine-tunes his message, as he shares stages and television studios with Ruppersberger, what once looked like folly suddenly has the trappings of a career-defining moment.

"Now it looks like it's not political suicide," he said. "I'm not sure how it happened. I think what people are longing for is for that person who is willing to risk it all politically, and step out."

Those who know Ports say they are not surprised by his newfound visibility.

"There's probably nobody that prepares themselves better for the job at hand than he does," said Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a fellow 8th District Republican. "Maybe it's his Marine background. If Jim is going to identify a hill to charge, the hill is going to know it's been charged."

That Ports would be mentioned as a possible county executive says much about the insular world of county politics, where the right name is almost as important as the right issues. It also speaks to the growing maturity of a one-time troublemaker who enlisted in the military because he knew he needed discipline, and who says he now spends more time coaching his daughter's soccer team than plotting his political future.

Ports, elected to the House of Delegates in 1990, says he had long rejected the notion of a run for elected office after watching his father, James F. Ports Sr., lose two races for the House in the 1960s.

But it was his father's community involvement and sports connections that planted seeds for a son's future in public service.

As a teen, he worked in his father's struggling sporting goods store, Ports Sports Shop, boasting when he rang up the most sales.

At Perry Hall High School in the mid-1970s, Ports wore his hair to the middle of his back. An indifferent student and class clown, he once set off a smoke bomb near the school's pay phones.

"He probably spent as much time in the office as I did," remembers James Bowerman, the former Perry Hall principal.

After spending a year hauling 98-pound loads of firebricks for furnace repairs, Ports enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was named the fittest recruit in his boot camp company and was deployed on a helicopter carrier during the hostage crisis in Iran. But after four years, Ports wanted out.

"I didn't like keeping everything in perfect order," he said.

Returning to Baltimore in 1982, he was hired as an appliance installer for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the company he still works for. He became active in the Northeast Fullerton Association and with his wife, Linda, began raising their children, Christopher, Jonathan and Kelsey.

"He's very much the family man. Jim balances children, political work and real-life work as well as anybody I know," Redmer said.

Unable to get local politicians to respond to their neighborhood concerns, a trio of community association leaders - Redmer, Ports and Kenneth G. Hirsch - decided to run for office in 1990. Redmer and Ports won, a remarkable accomplishment in a heavily Democratic area.

In the House of Delegates, Ports forged a reputation for doggedness. During their first legislative session, Ports and Redmer voted against several pet projects of General Assembly leaders, incurring the wrath of colleagues in the Baltimore County delegation who accurately predicted the retribution that would result.

Since then, Ports has passed only one bill in a decade in office. He's never voted for the state budget, calling it "fiscally irresponsible." He's not above holding up signs on the House floor, such as "Not For Sale" during this year's vote on mandatory gun locks.

"He's a Republican legislator in a state that is dominated by Democrats," said Jeffrey R. Getek, a spokesman for the state Senate Republican Caucus. Ports' core issues "are not popular in Annapolis, so he is going to stand alone sometimes," Getek said.

The fight over 509

Then came Senate Bill 509. As Ruppersberger lobbied heavily in Annapolis, Ports says he was swayed more by the pleadings of business owners and residents in Essex-Middle River who say they were never told about the plan and don't want their property taken.

"Let's just say I'm a sucker for a sad story. I really am," he said.

Supporters of Ruppersberger's plan say Ports may be creating some sad stories himself. They accuse him of spreading misleading information about the bill.

"He made an awful lot of people afraid by telling them every chance he could that they were going to have their homes taken away," said Del. Michael H. Weir, an Essex Democrat. "That was an outright lie."

Weir accuses Ports and Del. Diane DeCarlo, the Middle River Democrat who has also been outspoken about SB 509, of using the condemnation issue as a lever to unseat Sen. Michael J. Collins, the leader of the county Senate delegation from Essex and a backer of the proposal. "It's clear and blatant as anyone can see," Weir said.

But Ports says his critics are misguided. He says he's fighting for his beliefs, without worry for his political future.

"I want to be the guy that sits on the back deck with you, eats crabs and drinks a beer," he said. "I think people sense that. I think they sense I have both feet on the ground and am not trying to be the governor."

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