A near-flawless campaign separated O'Malley from rest

Key endorsements helped achieve stunning victory

City Primary 1999

September 15, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Less than three months ago when City Councilman Martin O'Malley announced his intent to run for Baltimore mayor, the city scoffed.

In a predominantly African-American city with two formidable black candidates, many thought the 36-year-old O'Malley stood little chance of surviving.

"Martin is history," said Stephen G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association union.

Fugate was right.

O'Malley sprinted to the finish line in yesterday's Democratic primary -- raising an astonishing $700,000 in two months -- to pass 16 mayoral rivals, including City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and former council member Carl Stokes.

"He got there pretty hard, pretty fast and pretty quickly," said Linneal Henderson, a political science professor at the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy.

O'Malley, a former state prosecutor and defense attorney, jumped into the mayoral race two weeks before the filing deadline in July, facing criticism from those who called him a "political opportunist" for trying to capitalize on a split in the black vote between Bell and Stokes.

He said he decided to run after seeing that neither Bell nor Stokes was hitting the key city problem: the need to close down open-air drug markets. When questioned during recent debates about his candidacy, O'Malley responded: "I feared not trying, more than I feared losing."

The father of three, whose wife, Katie, is the daughter of state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., ran a near-flawless campaign. He refused to criticize his opponents or engage in negative advertising while driving home his message to fight crime and make the city safer in order to stem the exodus of 1,000 residents a month.

In doing so, O'Malley separated himself from Bell and Stokes in the minds of voters such as Vanessa Hawkes-Grant, 41, a psychologist from Rosemont.

"I liked his point of view on crime," said Hawkes-Grant, who is black. "I felt he had an extra insight that came from being [a defense] attorney, even though his opponents used that as a negative against him."

Prominent support

O'Malley achieved the stunning victory with the help of prominent state leaders, including state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. The former governor, who served as Baltimore's mayor for 16 years, endorsed O'Malley last month, creating a momentum that failed to subside.

O'Malley then picked up the critical endorsement of a former council colleague, state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the first major African-American politician to endorse him. Two days later, she was joined by state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the House Appropriations Committee chairman, whose public support of O'Malley on the steps of the War Memorial sent a powerful message to African-Americans that it was OK to vote for a white mayor.

O'Malley was aided when Bell supporters disrupted the event, shouting down leading African-American legislators who were supporting O'Malley. Outcry over the incident resulted in the dismissal of Bell's campaign consultant, Julius Henson.

The O'Malley surge continued with an endorsement from the Service Employees International Union, a mostly black labor group representing hospital workers.

"That's what endorsements like that do: They say, `This is an OK guy,' " said Carol Arscott of Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communication Inc. of Annapolis, which tracked the mayor's race.

Setbacks to Bell, Stokes

Bell, the city's second-highest elected official, entered the race in June with a 16-percentage point lead over his nearest rival, Stokes.

Stokes, the first big-name candidate to enter the race after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that he would not seek a fourth term, kept an impressive, steady pace for nine months.

Yet both candidates suffered setbacks.

Bell was slowed by revelations of personal finance problems, including delinquency in paying condominium fees and car loans.

For Stokes, the crippling blow came in early July when he was forced to acknowledge falsely claiming a Loyola College degree on campaign literature.

"That was pivotal," said Herb C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College. "Fraudulent credentials is a category killer in the real world."

After entering the race, O'Malley never looked back. Three months ago, political pundits scoffed at the prospects of a white mayor leading Baltimore. Now, the eight-year council veteran, who gained a reputation as a fierce opponent of the Schmoke administration, is one election from becoming the city's 47th mayor.

O'Malley will face Republican primary winner, David F. Tufaro, in the general election Nov. 2.

Stokes nearly broke the momentum by gaining endorsements from The Sun, the Afro-American and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a group of about 200 mostly African-American church leaders. His rebound -- and ability to raise $200,000 in campaign contributions in the last month -- surprised many who thought the Loyola incident had knocked him out.

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