WASHINGTON–There may be a U.S. Senate campaign in Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger’s future. Then again, there may not.
“Too soon,” the Cockeysville Democrat told Capital News Service. “We’re all surprised with [Sen. Barbara] Mikulski. We didn’t know it was coming.”
Mikulski, D-Md., announced in March that she would retire from the Senate when her term ends in 2017, sending shockwaves through the political arena.
Two of Ruppersberger’s colleagues in the Maryland House delegation, Reps. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, and Donna Edwards, D-Fort Washington, quickly jumped into the Democratic primary field. Both are from the Washington suburbs.
Their candidacies have left the three Democratic congressmen from the vote-rich Baltimore area–Ruppersberger, Elijah Cummings and John Sarbanes–mulling their prospects in the race.
“My popular polling is very high in the Baltimore area,” said Ruppersberger, characterizing himself as a moderate Democrat. “If I’m the only one from Baltimore, I’ll consider it.”
“I’m not afraid to take a risk, believe me,” added the seven-term congressman, 69, who said he is likely to make a decision by the summer. His House seat is considered relatively secure.
Ruppersberger discussed a possible Senate campaign plus a wide range of issues–including cybersecurity threats, the death of Freddie Gray and infrastructure investments–in an exclusive interview with Capital News Service late last month.
A recurring key value was Ruppersberger’s emphasis on the importance of forging bipartisan relationships and working across the aisle.
“Compromise is not a dirty word,” he said.
A former Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, Ruppersberger targeted cybersecurity during his time on the panel, pegging that as an issue of major importance long before the high-profile hacking incidents at Target and Sony.
“The Sony attacks are the first destructive attacks,” Ruppersberger said. “There are several thousand people in this country that can do the same as Sony. What worries me is al-Qaeda and those groups hiring people in those type of attacks.”
Ruppersberger worked closely with the Intelligence Committee chairman at that time, former Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., on a bipartisan bill, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which would have established a system for information sharing between the public and private sectors. The bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
“Mike Rogers and I decided … that we’d be bipartisan,” Ruppersberger said. “Before we came to leadership, for years we couldn’t get a bill passed in the Intelligence Committee.”
That kind of cooperation comes naturally to him, Ruppersberger said.
“I kind of grew up as a [Baltimore County] councilman in a more Republican district, so I’ve always been very bipartisan,” he explained.
On the day of his interview with Capital News Service, Ruppersberger voted for and helped pass the Protecting Cyber Networks Act in a bipartisan vote of 307-116. The bill, much like CISPA, would set up a voluntary system of information sharing between the public sector and private entities.
Transparency and the Freddie Gray case
Protests and public outcry have enveloped Baltimore following the death of a black man in police custody.
Freddie Gray sustained a fatal spinal cord injury after police arrested him on April 12 and he died a week later. On May 1, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced the charges–including second-degree murder and manslaughter–against six officers involved in the arrest. Mosby also said the medical examiner had ruled Gray’s death a homicide.
“If you have a pattern of situations that occur like this, you have to reach out and you have to be more transparent,” Ruppersberger said in the April 22 interview. “I’m a big believer of police departments working community relations.”
Baltimore erupted after rioting overtook peaceful protesting, which resulted in some burning and looting of businesses and destruction of cars and other property. To help restore order, Gov. Larry Hogan activated units of the National Guard, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake instituted a citywide curfew.
On May 5, Ruppersberger met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, community faith leaders, Mikulski, Sen. Ben Cardin, and Reps. Cummings and Sarbanes to discuss the next steps in rebuilding Baltimore.
Ruppersberger’s concerns were also affirmed in a letter that he, Mikulski, Cardin, Cummings and Sarbanes sent to then- Attorney General Eric Holder before the peak of the protests and riots. The same lawmakers also wrote a letter to Lynch requesting a “pattern or practice” investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department.
“We need to handle this in a way that it doesn’t get like it was in Ferguson, and the way you deal with that is to gain trust–public trust,” Ruppersberger said.
“It’s giving back both ways, understanding that the people who work for you have families, they have needs, they have mortgage payments or rent payments,” Ruppersberger said.
“You have to hire professional people, and loyalty goes both ways,” he said. “You have to understand that if you want competent people, you have to do whatever you can to help them with their family life, too, and included in that is birth, and not only birth but after the baby is born.”
Ruppersberger offers staff members eight weeks of paid maternity leave and three weeks of paid paternity leave, with the option of taking more time for sick and vacation leave.
“You’re only as good as your people,” he said.
For Ruppersberger, infrastructure improvements need to be reinforced through better funding.
Long-term funding for transit is crucial in terms of creating jobs and boosting infrastructure, Ruppersberger said.
“I think one of the most important things we can do from a funding perspective, other than repealing sequestration, is start improving and investing in an infrastructure,” Ruppersberger said. “It creates jobs. But if you look at our country, our infrastructure is starting to fail. So it’s not only about creating jobs, it’s about doing the right thing and making sure that we can move people.”
For Ruppersberger, his daily commute is one example of the region’s need for more and better transit options.
“I live in Cockeysville, north of Baltimore, [and it] takes me two and a half hours to come to work in the morning, one hour to go home at night,” he said of his typical drive to and from his quarters in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Congress has passed short-term funding for transit projects, but Ruppersberger said short-term contracts prevent proper planning and are not conducive to job growth.
“You can’t have a one-year contract every year,” Ruppersberger said. “You can’t plan for what you need to do to get our infrastructure on par.”
The need for better infrastructure became even more urgent for Ruppersberger following this week’s fatal Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.
“Investing in infrastructure is one of the smartest things we can do to create jobs, increase the competitiveness of American businesses and ensure thousands of commuters get to work safely,” he said in a statement released after the crash. “We must pass a multi-year transportation funding bill that increases – not decreases – federal investment in highway, transit and rail programs before another disaster occurs.”