Ruppersberger declares victory

Dutch Ruppersberger declares victory in his race against Helen Bentley for the 2nd District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Sun photo by Jerry Jackson / November 6, 2002)

Democrats claimed victories last night in two hotly contested races for Maryland congressional seats that have long been in Republican hands.

C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County and Christopher Van Hollen Jr. of Montgomery County won in contests that attracted the attention of both national parties.

Incumbents easily won re-election to the state's six other seats in the House of Representatives.

In the 2nd District, Ruppersberger, 56, the Baltimore County executive, defeated former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, 78, reversing two decades of Republican victories in the mostly Democratic district centered on the county's east side.

Ruppersberger waded through a throng of supporters last night in a confetti-filled ballroom at the Towson Sheraton while the theme from Rocky played in the background.

"Helen was a great, great public servant," Ruppersberger said. "She was tenacious, and I think it's important that we acknowledge that she ran a great race. But we won the race."

Bentley, jabbing at Democrats to the last, conceded defeat about 11 p.m., saying that even in a losing effort, her campaign may have provided a boost to Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - who gave up the congressional seat to run for governor.

"It appears our efforts in Parris Glendening's new 2nd District have fallen short," she said to a cheering crowd at the American Legion post in Towson. "But we have provided a solid backbone for Ehrlich's campaign."

In suburban Washington's 8th District, Van Hollen, 43, a state senator, defeated Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella, 71, a popular eight-term incumbent.

"I am just so very fortunate," said Morella in conceding. "I've had the opportunity to move the issues that affect all of us. For all of this, I thank all of you. I will always remember all of you in my heart."

Van Hollen waited for Morella's concession, then entered the ballroom at a Silver Spring country club with his wife and two young children as a band played James Brown's "I Feel Good."

"This is not a vote against Connie Morella," he said. "It's a vote for change in the district and change in leadership."

President Bush was among those who called to offer regrets to Morella, the only condolence call he made in the election, the White House said.

The two Maryland districts were viewed by both national parties as swing seats in the battle for control of the House, where Republicans began the evening with a 223-208 advantage. The parties sent in money and political stars, including Bush and his wife, Laura, and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady.

The results allowed Maryland Democrats to break the 4-4 tie between the parties in the state's congressional delegation. The split is now 6-2.

The Democrats used redistricting, the remapping of congressional districts that follows every census, to improve the party's prospects in both districts by adding precincts with heavy concentrations of Democratic voters.

Ruppersberger is only the second Baltimore County executive to be elected to higher office; Spiro T. Agnew, who became governor and vice president, was the first.

When his plans for a gubernatorial bid faded last fall, Ruppersberger let it be known that he would be interested in running for Congress, provided that Governor Glendening could draw him a sufficiently Democratic district.

In the campaign, Bentley, who had held the seat for 10 years until giving it up to run for governor in 1994, emphasized her advocacy for the Port of Baltimore and her record of constituent service. She also stressed the Republican leadership's promise that her seniority and seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee would be restored if she were elected.