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Is Dutch condemned to life in the ditch?


HAS DUTCH Ruppersberger driven his political career into a ravine? That's the word from critics eager to write off the Baltimore County executive.

But a note of caution: Given Mr. Ruppersberger's strong track record, and his ability to surprise, such claims may be premature.

The county executive has had a troubled 2000, after five strong years. A key architect of that success, Michael H. Davis, has departed. Suddenly, the sure-footed Mr. Ruppersberger is stumbling.

When county workers in Towson's Investment Building complained about health problems from a "sick" building, the county executive was slow to respond.

It took a protest rally to get his attention. "Happy, healthy employees are our No. 1 priority," he proclaimed. But he failed to follow through. Workers are still unhappy; building repairs are still in dispute, and county agencies remain in a defensive mode.

Mr. Ruppersberger also failed to anticipate the furor over expanding the county jail. Neighborhood groups felt blindsided. It was presented as a fait accompli. Folks don't like being treated that way.

The biggest tumble, though, happened on the east side, where Mr. Ruppersberger opted for a risky strategy to revive the troubled Essex-Middle River area.

He used much political capital to get legislative approval in Annapolis of a condemnation bill to revive this waterfront section hit hard by crime, drugs and decades of government neglect.

The bill identifies each home or business affected. But opponents see it as a threat to property rights. They are whipping up fears -- unfounded -- that thousands of other homes could be next.

Baltimore County has a history of hostility toward condemnation and government housing projects. Especially in blue-collar sections, government-imposed changes trigger resistance.

Take, for instance, the Moving to Opportunity panic in the mid-1990s. Demagogues made it sound as though Dundalk would be flooded with 18,000 low-income black families from the city. That helped kill the program.

It clearly showed the danger of sponsoring a housing or redevelopment project on the east side. Fears of displacement, racism and classism all come into play.

Now, Mr. Ruppersberger's condemnation bill has revived all those nightmares among east-siders, who had no trouble petitioning the bill to referendum.

Republicans jumped on the bandwagon. It's a perfect "evil-government-at-work" issue for conservatives. In some ways, opponents are rephrasing the "Your home is your castle -- protect it" cry from foes of government intervention during Maryland's civil rights fights in the 1960s.

Those opposing Mr. Ruppersberger are agitated and highly motivated. They are appealing to people's worst instincts. They may well succeed.

But will it cripple Mr. Ruppersberger's political hopes of becoming governor? Probably not.

Outside Essex-Middle River, folks in Baltimore County aren't upset. Few know about the bill.

Mr. Ruppersberger has the contacts to work county precincts and make sure a "yes" vote is included on many sample ballots.

All these disputes could fade from view over the coming months, too. Remember, the campaign for governor is two years away.

Were Mr. Ruppersberger eligible to run for a third term as county executive, the condemnation brouhaha would loom large. Not so in a statewide campaign.

The county executive's real problem is Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's enormous head start. She has more money and is beloved by two core Democrat constituencies -- labor unions and minorities.

She's well-known throughout the state. Mr. Ruppersberger isn't. He's a regional figure, at best.

Still, don't bet against the man everyone calls Dutch. On the county council, he often was seen as a lightweight fence-sitter.

Yet as county executive, he's tackled tough issues, made difficult choices and been superb -- until recently -- at lining up early support and reaching a consensus.

Is Dutch in the ditch? Yes, at the moment. But it could be a temporary mishap -- if he can regain the political momentum he had going into the new millennium.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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