Meeting brings leaders to city

O'Malley, Townsend on political stage as Democrats gather

July 13, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's status as a "real" city within commuting distance of that den of bureaucrats, Washington, D.C., serves it in good stead this weekend as the Democratic Leadership Council brings its "national conversation" to town for the second year in a row.

But more than the city will be on display for this influential group of Democrats. They will also be taking a close look at the event's co-leaders, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Mayor Martin O'Malley, because this meeting is considered an incubator for new leaders in the party.

"Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has been a leader in the DLC for years," said Al From, the group's president. "If she is elected governor, which many people think she will, she has a chance to be one of the first women on a national ticket. But she has to serve as governor first.

"And Martin O'Malley is one of the brighter young political leaders in the country," From said. "We'll see. He's young and he hasn't been in office very long. This gathering gives us a chance to showcase a lot of local leaders from across the country."

The two-day event that starts tomorrow is a major national gathering for the DLC, a group that has helped shape Democratic Party policies for the past decade with a pro-growth agenda much more friendly to the business community than many previous Democratic stands.

The numbers at this convention are small compared to the square dancers who were recently in town or this week's NAACP convention. Fewer than 200 elected officials, almost all from the state and local level, will attend. Even counting families and staff, the total attendance will be around 1,000.

Clinton sends regrets

But the group's influence cannot be denied. Its most famous graduate - President Clinton - was expected tomorrow but canceled because of the Mideast peace summit. He was to have conducted an online discussion with Prime Minister Tony Blair of England, another political leader who has been influenced by the DLC agenda.

Vice President Al Gore is expected to give the wrap-up speech Saturday afternoon.

"These are members of what I think of as the more entrepreneurial, pragmatic, forward-thinking wing of our party," O'Malley said. "It's an opportunity for Baltimore to shine and for Maryland to shine, for us to broadcast that this is a city where opportunity abounds."

Louis J. Akers Jr., chief executive officer of Ferris, Baker Watts Inc., is chairman of the host committee, an innovation this year designed to get more local involvement in the event.

"It's pretty high profile," he said of the gathering. "It's wonderful for the city. All across the country, people are going to know Baltimore much better."

Townsend is credited with bringing the meeting to Baltimore last year. DLC officials say she agreed to continue as co-chair of the event only if it moved out of Washington, where it met for two years, to her state. It was an easy sell, in part because the event remained close enough to Washington to allow participants to stop by while they're in the area.

"They liked the way they were treated here," Townsend said of the decision to come back. "And we like to show off what we've been able to accomplish in Maryland. Many of the initiatives we've had were part of the DLC platform. They can see those ideas put into action."

Townsend and O'Malley are not the only local Democrats getting the stage at the DLC event; county executives Douglas M. Duncan of Montgomery County and Wayne K. Curry of Prince George's County will also lead events. After a crab feast tomorrow night, many of the DLC visitors are expected to head to an Irish bar where O'Malley's March, the mayor's band, has a gig.

From said the DLC sees the meeting not only as an opportunity for local officials to talk about ideas that work in their communities, but also as an incubator for new leadership.

"We are bringing people who are the next generation of leadership in the Democratic Party together so they can talk about ideas and learn from each other," he said.

Townsend said that getting these people to Baltimore early in their careers can only help the city and state. "I believe many of these young leaders will go on to greater things. They will remember what they saw here," she said.

New economy

The theme of the "conversation" is the new economy, dealing with the transition from industrial to service to information-based economies.

From said that the new economy offers opportunities for depressed economic areas. "You can be a part of the new economy without making the kind of investments in infrastructure that were required by the industrial economy," he said.

Instead, From said, the new economy requires investments in an educated work force and a variety of quality of life issues - low crime, good schools, clean air - that attract these businesses.

"We'll be showing off how successfully we're attracting start-up IT companies and businesses that represent the new economy," O'Malley said of Baltimore.

"It is important for Democrats not to fall back into closed-door protectionism and worn-out policies of the past, but to rush forward and make investments in the people and their skills and the emerging technological economy that is really going to transform our whole country's economy, and this city's in particular," he said.

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