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Dutch Ruppersberger will miss the ‘action’ in Congress

‘The key is trust,’ retiring Maryland Democrat says

“I’m used to action all the time,” says Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, seen here in 2019.
“I’m used to action all the time,” says Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, seen here in 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Most of us look forward to the day we can trade in long hours of toil for retirement’s life of leisure, but that’s a rare outlook on Capitol Hill, where septuagenarians often keep working the kind of hours that’d make medical residents blanch. 

Despite announcing his own retirement recently, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is no different. He made his reluctant decision in part because “there comes a time when you’ve got to let other people take over.” And when asked what “perk” he’ll miss most about Congress, a transparent attempt to get the Maryland Democrat to share some anecdotes about state dinners or inaugural soirees, Ruppersberger responded instead with “action.” 

The answer is telling, especially in the current House, which has seen a historic level of inaction. “This is probably the most difficult time I’ve seen, and I’ve been here almost 22 years,” Ruppersberger said. 

“Before, we had better relationships between Democrats and Republicans. Now, they don’t talk. The older ones do,” he added. “We’re on committees together, and I go to the other side and talk to people.” 

Ruppersberger sat down in his office last month to talk about bonding over college sports, what his Republican friends see in Donald Trump and making room for the next generation.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Why did you decide to hang it up now?

A: I think more for my family. I’ve got five grandkids, the love of my life. But also, there comes a time when you’ve got to let other people take over. Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer [stepping down from Democratic leadership] was the best thing they did, because after a while, it’s the same thing over and over, and you need other people to take it to the next level. 

And I’m not happy about it. I’m still coming to terms with it. I’m used to action all the time. I mean, during COVID, our office opened every day, one of the few offices here, but we did what we needed to do. I served in local government for about 16 or 17 years, and when you’re in local government, you’ve got to get things done for your constituents.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m gonna do something. Maybe boards. I have a son who’s very active in business. But I haven’t even thought about it, to be honest. I have a place in Ocean City, where I was a lifeguard at age 15. You know, I was a cop when I was in law school, I like action — but I love Ocean City. It’s the one place I can sit down and read a book, that type of thing.

I like being involved to help people, and a lot of it’s about relationships and trust. And that’s what we still have, thank God, on the Defense Appropriations [Subcommittee]. There are about four or five Republicans and two of us who really work together, and we trust each other. The key is trust. 

Q: Does that imply that trust is gone everywhere else?

A: I’m not going to name names, but we have somebody who can’t get the votes, but he controls the House right now. Why are they for [a border security deal], and we came around and agreed to it, and now they’re not for it? Where are we going, folks, as the United States of America? 

Q: You kind of did name a name there. Do you think this is particular to Mike Johnson and GOP leadership, or is it something deeper?

A: In order to be bipartisan and get things done, people have to trust you. You know, I’ve got some friends here because I played college sports. There’s a small group of us who have, and we’ll see each other in the gym, and there’s some bonding there, no matter what side of the aisle they’re on.

Q: What did you play?

A: I played lacrosse. George Young, who became general manager of the Giants, was my football coach in high school. His No. 2 guy took over the lacrosse team, and he needed some hitters, so I had to start playing lacrosse. But as it turned out, I ended up playing on Team USA. So it’s been a part of my life, and I’ve coached my kids and my grandkids too.

Q: Back to trust on the Hill, how much of this is about Donald Trump?

A: I just can’t see how anyone who cares about this country would support somebody who has been known to not tell the truth, someone who cares more about himself and maybe his oldest daughter than anybody else. How can people say this is a person who’s going to run our country, who says things like, “Russia, go get these other countries because they don’t pay their dues on NATO”? 

Don’t get me started on Trump. I’m chair of the Naval Academy board and co-chair of the Army Caucus, and I just can’t believe the things I’m seeing. And even some of my closest Republican friends just let him get away with his crap.

Q: When you talk to those friends about it, what do they say? 

A: They say, “We might as well go with it. We don’t like it, but your guy’s no better, he’s an old guy too.” 

But let me tell you, you’re only as good as your team. I got a great team here. That’s why I do a good job. And when you’re only as good as your team, that’s what Biden has done. And he’s been around a long time, and he’s honest.

Q: You first came to Congress in 2003.

A: I didn’t want to come here. I wanted to be governor. I said, “The only way I’ll go is if I can get on the Intel Committee.” And Nancy [Pelosi] said, “No, we don’t put freshmen on.” 

A month later, they called and said Helen Bentley’s coming back to run for her seat, and [Bob] Ehrlich’s going to be governor. I won that seat against Bentley, and Nancy put me on [the Intelligence Committee], which I’m glad she did. 

Mike Rogers of Michigan [was chair when I eventually became ranking member]. He was a former FBI agent and I was a former prosecutor, and we hit it off. And we said, “Whoever you are, if it’s more than two times you’re screwing around and playing partisan politics, you’re out of here.” 

We probably accomplished as much as anybody has because we worked together as a team, and he’s still a good friend of mine today. I haven’t seen him in [a while]. He’s embarrassed to see me because he’s taken some positions that I don’t like.

Q: How has Congress changed? 

A: It’s changed a lot. If you disagree [on the issues], that’s fine. But now, it’s almost as if we’re enemies, and that’s not good for the country. 

When I was a county executive, I had a reputation as a very moderate, pro-business Democrat. Now, my business friends, a lot of them say, “Dutch has changed. He’s a liberal Democrat.” But I’m who I am. That’s one thing that bothers me, that people get classified here as Dems and Republicans, and that’s not helping our country at all.

Quick hits

Last book you read? Really, I read more reports and papers, and by the time I finish that, I usually don’t go to bed until 11:30 or 12 at night. I do like reading a good book, but normally on the beach where I’m not bothered. So that’s rare. 

In politics, can the ends justify the means? Yeah, sure. But you have to work together. You have to trust the people you’re working with. 

One perk of being a congressman you’ll miss? Action. Working to help people with different issues, constituent services. It feels good. 

Your least popular opinion? My unpopular opinion is let’s get it done. We’re not going to win everything.

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