WASHINGTON – Teamsters Local 355 President Denis Taylor has known Republican Helen Delich Bentley for years, but he is supporting Dutch Ruppersberger in the 2nd District race because he wants a Democratic Congress.
“That’s a critical issue, or else I may have supported Helen, but there’s some bigger fish to fry,” Taylor said. “We’ve got a good friendship (with Bentley), but politics is politics.”
But Taylor knows that not everyone in his union is going Dutch. He is encouraging union members to vote the way they feel, not based on the union’s endorsement.
In a race that polls show is a toss up, observers said swing voters in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties — like Taylor’s union brothers — will decide the election. Bentley, who held the 2nd District seat from 1984 to 1994, and Ruppersberger, the outgoing Baltimore county executive, have traded minute leads in recent polls that showed the race statistically too close to call.
“It’s anybody’s grab,” said WBAL political analyst Frank DeFilippo. “It’s a toss up between two big-name people.”
Tom Schaller, a political science professor at University of Maryland Baltimore County, said party-line votes will likely give Harford County to Bentley and Baltimore County to Ruppersberger. New voters in Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County will decide the race, he said.
“The race is among new people,” Schaller said. “There are new votes to harvest. What will matter is whoever pulls new people over most.”
The race has drawn national attention, because Democrats see an opportunity to pick up one of the handful of seats they need to regain control of the House. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, is leaving the seat to run for governor, leaving behind a district that was redrawn this year to be more heavily Democratic.
There has not been a Democratic congressman in the 2nd district in 18 years. But the district now is 63 percent Democratic, and almost 60 percent of the voters live in Baltimore County.
Maryland Democratic Party officials are portraying Ruppersberger, 56, as a moderate for what is seen as a moderate district.
“He’s more of a populist candidate and has a wide appeal,” said Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson. “He cares about the interests of the people. He wants a better neighborhood and a better street and a better community.
But Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University, believes the race is a dead heat in part because Ruppersberger has traveled to the center in hopes of attracting votes in a district with a history of voting conservative.
“I really believe at heart that Bentley is a predictable conservative and Ruppersberger is more conservative than most Democrats,” Vatz said. “There is little difference in senior benefits and Social Security.”
DeFilippo notes that Ruppersberger was only able to win 50 percent of the vote in a tough primary and wonders about his appeal.
“Dutch just isn’t catching on,” he said. “It’s really close, but Bentley might have the edge because of the district’s voting record.”
Bentley, 78, who earned a reputation in her earlier congressional term as a longtime supporter of the Port of Baltimore, has focused her campaign on homeland security, national security and economic security. Unlike her party, she believes Social Security should not be privatized during the current economic downturn.
She is also touting the fact that House Republicans have guaranteed Bentley her former seat on the House Appropriations Committee with full seniority from her last term. Maryland Republican Party Executive Director Paul Ellington said voters would rather have a veteran congresswoman than a “neophyte.”
“People don’t want a congressman who has to learn on the job,” Ellington said. “They’re more inclined to go with someone who knows their way around. Ruppersberger will need a map to find the floor of Congress.”
Schaller said Ruppersberger’s local campaign focus might help combat that newcomer image. He has traveled throughout swing areas, giving speeches, attending rallies and endorsements.
But he also noted that, by promoting his record as county executive in contrast to Bentley’s 8-year-old congressional record, Ruppersberger might unintentionally bring up key issues he has struggled to avoid.
As county executive, he supported a bill that would have condemned property in the Dundalk area and create a waterfront community. The measure, Senate Bill 509, was defeated on referendum. He also backed the decision to expand the county jail in Towson.
“There’s a stink on Ruppersberger for Senate Bill 509,” said DeFilippo, who agreed with Schaller. “He gets booed wherever he goes.”
Paulson conceded that the issue might hurt Ruppersberger, even though he said it “was blown out of proportion.” But he also said the flap ultimately showed Ruppersberger is a strong candidate.
“At least what he did was have five public forums and hash it out in front of the people,” Paulson said. “He faced it. He earned respect for sticking with his guns on the issue.”
But Bentley campaign spokesman Michael Kosmas said Ruppersberger’s record as county executive, plus a flurry of recent negative television ads against Bentley, would bring up “a whole lot of ethical questions” about the Democratic challenger.
Kosmas accused the Ruppersberger campaign of striking first with the negative ads, saying the Democrat has spent $525,000 of soft money on ads that attack Bentley’s environmental voting record.
Bentley’s campaign responded “in kind” with ads attacking “King Dutch” and his imperial county government. Kosmas prefers to call it a “contrasting ad.”
The Republican has raised more than $589,000 for the campaign and has been endorsed by organizations like the National Federation of Independent Business and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Sharon Wolff, director of campaign services for the NFIB, said Bentley received overwhelming support from the 300 small business owners in the district.
“Her support plus her voting record in Congress made it clear,” Wolff said. “Being endorsed by small business is a good endorsement to have. It’s more favorable than trial lawyers and labor unions.”
Ruppersberger has raised over $862,000, but has spent over 60 percent of it, in part because of the expensive primary challenge mounted by businessman Oz Bengur. The Sierra Club and the several education organizations have endorsed him based on his record.
Denise Cardinal, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, said Ruppersberger’s teacher-mentoring program — which has recruited 102 retired teachers as mentors to new teachers in Baltimore County – made him “the clear choice” in the 2nd District.
Alex Wohl, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said Ruppersberger is a positive choice because he opposes school vouchers and tuition tax credits.
“He takes the right position on education issues like class size and Head Start,” Wohl said. “Bentley had a record, but it wasn’t one we were particularly proud of.”
Bentley has criticized Ruppersberger’s heavy spending and said she would rather have the endorsement of the chamber of commerce than radical anti- business groups.
But Margaret Conway of the Sierra Club said Ruppersberger is both pro- business and pro-environment, because he has the support of the United Steelworkers of America and the United Mineworkers of America.
“She can call us names if she wants, but it’s unfortunate she’s doing that instead of talking about her record,” Conway said. “Bentley has it wrong in this case.”
Ellington said that while union presidents might support Ruppersberger, union members have united under Bentley because she supports working-class citizens.
“Ruppersberger created more part-time jobs to circumvent the unions. It’s legal what he’s doing, but it’s obvious as well,” he said. “He’s privatizing jobs at the county level and subcontracted jobs out so they don’t have to pay the union rate.”
But analysts agree that endorsements may ultimately matter little because voters are choosing between candidates with equally strong trade-offs and personalities, and not deciding based on the party line.
“This is they way a campaign should be run,” Vatz said. “They both articulate their positions. This is a good, tough race and a model campaign. I have no idea who’s going to win.”