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C. Fraser Smith: Ruppersberger – No Hamlet he

William Donald Schaefer loved to provoke reporters. In 1985, we were asking him every day if he was thinking about running for governor. We were watching everything he did, looking for clues, reading tea leaves.

One day, he went to Dundalk for something. Aha, we said, he’s introducing himself to new voters (as if everyone in Maryland didn’t know him).

“Why’d you go to Dundalk?” someone asked him.

“To see the Dundalkians,” he said.

He really hadn’t made up his mind and he was tired of the question, so he lapsed into the silly, infuriating responses he loved and we hated.

I am reminded of these Schaeferian moments now as we wonder what U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is up to. He’s actually a little more straightforward than Schaefer. Dutch says he’s interested. He says he likes managing. He says he’s thinking about it. Friends are urging him to get in the race.

Schaefer really didn’t want to run. Dutch probably does. He’s probably happy in the House. He loves his job there, he says. But he’s in the minority. He’s serving in a governing body with approval ratings in the teens. And he’s thinking about what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Will he be OK just serving out his time? Or does he want to do something a bit more challenging?

Could be — would be — a lot more challenging. If he runs, he’d be entering a Democratic Party primary against at least two strong opponents:

-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, an attractive, young candidate from Prince George’s County, bidding to become Maryland’s first black governor. Brown is about to announce — and, perhaps, to announce his running mate, Ken Ulman, the Howard County executive. Brown-Ulman could be a strong, youthful and adequately financed team.

-Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler of Montgomery County, who has more than $5 million in his campaign account. Gansler’s sights have been set on Annapolis for years. Regarded as something of a hot dog within his party and by some in his home county, Gansler has served seven relatively quiet and workmanlike years as the state’s top lawyer.

Ruppersberger says he’s contemplating the race in part because he worries that two candidates from the D.C. suburbs will have insufficient concern for the welfare of the Baltimore region. It’s a politically useful concern: “If I get in the race, in other words, it’s about ‘the people’ — not me, the candidate looking for a glorious last hurrah.”

If your name is Dutch and people have known you for decades, you can probably pull this off. In fact, his “aw shucks” likability could be an even more useful profile than it usually is in politics. If your name is Dutch and you’ve been around for a long time, people know you. Brown and Ulman and Gansler — none of them brimming with charisma — have some introducing to do.

For Ruppersberger, who says he’ll be able to raise the money, the question may come down to how much of a risk he’s taking. By one measure, he might hate to lose his position on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. Surely, that’s a position of importance. He could leave public office after a few more terms with much to be proud of — a great career, a great legacy of public service.

But that service is already there as part of his record. He probably isn’t worried about having a job. He’s an old lacrosse player (with the knees to prove it). He’s a competitor. Like a lot of his colleagues, he has to be frustrated by the paralytic body he serves in. He probably tells himself how liberated he’ll if he’s in a race that matters.

William Donald Schaefer never wanted to leave the mayor’s office. He did it because his political mentors leaned on him — and because he knew a black majority city would demand a black mayor soon enough.

Political life in Maryland is about to accelerate, so a candidate who wants to run probably doesn’t have all day to make up his mind. Dithering is not a particularly dynamic image either.

He’s one of the Maryland politicians who doesn’t have to worry much about losing the seat he has now. But every political leader knows he can’t sit on two stools at the same time — without danger of falling through.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.