by Bryan p. sears
The first official volleys were fired by Oz Bengur, who is running ads on cable TV and dabbling in some creative approaches to promotion in cyberspace.
Bengur began running a TV spot last week that features an attack on Ruppersberger and his support of Senate Bill 509, a law that sought to expand the county's condemnation power but was defeated in referendum in the 2000 elections by a nearly 3-1 margin.
The billboard style ad fills one-third of the screen and features a red background with the words "It's 509 stupid" - a reference to President Bill Clinton's 1994 campaign theme about the economy. The ad then fades into a frame featuring Bengur's picture, then back to the SB 509 reference.
The ad, which is running on Comcast's TV Guide Channel, is scheduled to air more than 120 times per day until July 27.
Jim Cauley, who is managing Ruppersberger's congressional bid, said he had not seen the ads but said he believed they are typical of the negative style embraced by Julius Henson, Bengur's campaign strategist.
"My take on this is that they're calling the voters stupid," Cauley said. "That's offensive."
SB 509 and the expansion of the Towson detention center are increasingly becoming the focus of campaigns by Ruppersberger's primary election opponents.
"That vote was as much about Dutch as it was about 509," Henson said. "He lost 185 of 189 precincts. How can a guy win after a whipping like that? He can't."
Webster Bosley, who is managing the congressional campaign of his father Kenneth T. Bosley, said they will also focus on those issues.
Cauley, a seasoned political operative who has worked on campaigns for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Attorney General Joseph Curran, questioned the strategy.
"To be honest," Cauley said, "what does 509 have to do with a federal election?"
Bengur said the issue backs up his argument that Ruppersberger is "out of touch" with his constituents and has an "autocratic" style of governing.
Battle on the web
Bengur is not content to confine his efforts to television. He's also taking the battle to the Internet.
A Web site called Ruppersbergerforcongress.com automatically connects surfers to Bengur's campaign site.
A search of domain names turned up one additional domain name - Dutchforcongress.org - that also connects visitors to Bengur's site.
"Is that right?" Bengur spokesman David Brown sheepishly responded when asked about the sites. He later admitted that Bengur's campaign purchased the sites and called it "very healthy competition."
Brown said the domain names were purchased before he and Henson came on board Bengur's campaign in May.
"It's a clever idea that came from the person who designed our Web site," he said.
Domain registration records show that an employee of Internetgravity.com, a Virginia based Web site design and hosting company, purchased the names on March 20. Bengur maintains the rights to them until March 19, 2004.
But Cauley said Ruppersberger's camp was not concerned with the cyber-chicanery.
"We're going to run our race and they can run their race," Cauley said.
Flier references 9-11
Two weeks ago, Bengur released copies of a flier he said his staff discovered outside his campaign office in Lutherville.
The fliers prominently feature a picture of the World Trade Center buildings in New York in flames after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Some so-called Democrat leaders want to take part in destroying what is best for Maryland by trying to destroy our twin towers," the flier reads.
The flier goes on to identify gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and 2nd Congressional District candidate Dutch Ruppersberger as the "twin towers." It also urges that other Democrats support both candidates. Bengur said he believes the flier calls him a terrorist because he filed to run against Ruppersberger.
In a released statement, Bengur pointed the finger at "my opponent and his divisive supporters..." as being responsible for the leaflet. When the flier was discovered, only Ruppersberger and Bengur were officially in the 2nd District race.
A line on the flier states that it was paid for by Democrats Working Together. However, the State Elections Board has no record of the group being registered as a campaign organization.
Bengur said last week that he is not sure whether Ruppersberger was involved.
"Whether he (Ruppersberger) was involved or it was some rogue group, I don't know," Bengur said. "It doesn't smell good. I'll let people draw their own conclusions."
Asked if Ruppersberger was involved in the flier, Cauley said, "All I can say is that we didn't have anything to do with it. It isn't Dutch's style."
Also prominently featured on the flier is a circular logo with the words "working together" that is similar to a logo used by county executive candidate Jim Smith, a Democrat.
Smith said he first saw the flier back in April. After seeing his logo he filed to protect his copyright.
"I don't want my logo associated with a smeary, inappropriate, trashy piece," Smith said.
To Cauley, the flier was "eerily reminiscent."
"When the flier landed on my desk," Cauley said, "I had a moment where I thought, 'hmmm I've been here before.'"
Cauley said the fliers looked similar to some produced in 1999 by the Aryan Blood Brotherhood that offered to support Mayor Martin O'Malley during his mayoral campaign.
During that race, Henson and Robert Clay worked for O'Malley rival Lawrence A. Bell III.
Clay and the Rev. Daki Napata were later identified by two female clerks of a Catonsville office supply store as being the men who made 3,000 copies of the racially inflammatory flier.
Henson, who does not shy away from his reputation as a take-no-prisoners style campaigner, bristled at suggestions that the flier originated from his office.
"We had nothing to do with it," Henson said. "It's easy for them to worry about what I'm going to do. Dutch is not the greatest campaigner in the world."
Others said the fliers looked familiar to them, too.
Janice Hundt, a business owner who was involved in the fight against SB 509, said the fliers looked similar in style and format to some she saw two years ago.
Those fliers attacked individuals involved in the anti-SB 509 movement, including Del. Jim Ports who debated Ruppersberger on the issue.
The author of those fliers was never identified.
E-mail Bryan Sears at email@example.com.