WASHINGTON – Among Maryland’s congressmen, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger isn’t the most gregarious, or the most charming, he’s not the politician’s politician, and he doesn’t have the benefit of seniority or the appeal of youth.
But despite the things he’s not, the congressman is making a name — he recently had it legally changed to “Dutch,” by the way — for himself in Washington for what he is: a back-slapping constituent services Democrat who has adjusted to life on the Hill remarkably well, according to experts and colleagues.
After two terms representing Maryland’s 2nd Congressional District, Ruppersberger, 60, launched a successful free-flight program for troops abroad, put his stamp on a major port security bill as a sophomore member of the minority party, and cozied into his seat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — a plum assignment that could be supercharged if Democrats take the House and he wins re-election in November.
His opponent, 28-year-old Republican James D. Mathis, is running a bargain-bin campaign — he’s raised less than $2,000. Mathis, a freelance editor and cameraman, also from Cockeysville, is realistic about his slim chances and appears to be offering himself up for sacrifice to build name recognition for future campaigns.
If Ruppersberger’s campaign spending — about $432,000 to date — is any indication of his anxieties about the general election, it’s clear he’s not anticipating much of a scrap. Ruppersberger skated through his 2004 race, as predicted, spending $648,000. In 2002, battling for a first term, he spent about $1.2 million.
The scaled-back campaign has freed him to do the things he enjoys most about being congressman, he says, like meandering around his district, chatting up his constituents. The things he likes least about the job: traffic and partisan squabbling.
It’s about 60 miles from the doorstep of the Capitol to Cockeysville, where he lives with his wife, Kay, and where he reared his now adult children, Jill and Corey. It’s a considerably longer distance from the left side of the aisle to the right, Ruppersberger says.
“The country is more divided now than almost ever,” says Ruppersberger on his cell phone between speaking engagements. “You’re elected to debate, and you’re never given the opportunity.”
It’s no wonder Ruppersberger, a graduate of University of Baltimore School of Law, balks at partisan politics, experts say. Of the Democratic congressman in the state, he is “as middle-of-the-road as it gets,” says Bill Barry, a professor of political science at the Community College of Baltimore County.
John Willis, former Maryland secretary of state, is leery of placing Ruppersberger in the political middle, but he says that “Dutch’s strength as a county executive was building consensus. . . . He has a strong ability to relate to his peers and come up with solutions,” regardless of party affiliation.
Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, says Ruppersberger “is a very bipartisan person.”
“It’s the most politically charged committee in the House right now . . . and Dutch hasn’t fallen into that,” LaHood says.
The 2nd District used to be among the few Republican enclaves in the state. When then-Rep. Robert Ehrlich left the seat to campaign for governor in 2001, the Democratic Party recruited Ruppersberger, who was approaching his term limit as Baltimore County executive.
Ruppersberger has “always had a reputation as a conservative Democrat,” says Richard E. Vatz, a political professor at Towson University. “Especially in foreign policy, he has always surprised us by being more conservative than people expect around here.”
Ruppersberger has been to Iraq four times and favors removing American troops from the streets of Iraqi cities and deploying them to the perimeters, allowing for a phased troop withdrawal as the Iraqis take on more responsibility.
“The arrogance concerns me,” Ruppersberger says of the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq. “We need a new strategy.”
Ruppersberger says his greatest success as a congressman was “Operation Hero Miles,” a program he created in 2003 to help troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq fly home for free, and to help family members visit their loved ones recovering in military hospitals around the country. The program earned him national acclaim. He’s also been getting national recognition for his position on the Intelligence Committee, and of course, for his unusual name.
The story on that: “When he was born, he came out with a big head of blond hair, so they called him ‘Dutch,'” says Ruppersberger’s spokeswoman, Heather Moeder Molino. “It stuck.” The “C.A.” stands for Charles Albert.
In his district, he’s known simply as “Dutch,” and he’s “a real neighborhood backslapper,” says Barry. “He’s a constituent-services guy who plays well with others.”
Ruppersberger isn’t about to disagree.
“You don’t get elected in Washington, you get elected in your district,” he says. “Anyone who works for me knows that this is a service business, and they want to help people. I don’t want people working for me that don’t want to help others.”
Baltimore County Councilman S.G. Samuel Moxley, who’s known Ruppersberger for more than 20 years and served on the council while he was county executive, says Ruppersberger “is a people person. He is very strong willed, but you can disagree with him at work, and he can disagree with you, and that’s it. He never let things fester or had any animosity towards his colleagues.”
In fact, if anything’s festering, it’s the partisan animosity among legislators on the Hill. Ruppersberger says he prefers to stay out of the scrum, but that doesn’t mean he’s uncomfortable in the center.
Moxley adds, “There’s nobody like him from our delegation.”