O'Malley attracts primary spotlight

Some think mayor has best chance to derail Townsend

November 01, 2001|By David Nitkin and Gady A. Epstein | David Nitkin and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

As the 2002 election draws closer and other potential candidates fade away, the buzz is increasing about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley pondering a run for governor.

Some of the mayor's advisers say his chances for political advancement might never be greater. There is no incumbent in the race because Gov. Parris N. Glendening is prevented from seeking re-election.

Detractors of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the leader in early polls, say O'Malley is the last best Democratic hope to stop an accelerating juggernaut.

Other advisers, however, are encouraging O'Malley to stay put. After only two years in office, they say, his work is incomplete. The mayor can make more of an impact from City Hall than from Annapolis, they argue.

Not surprisingly, O'Malley is not showing his hand - except to make clear that he is not impressed with the presumed front-runner.

"I'm waiting to see some leadership from people who want to be governor, and so far I haven't seen a whole lot of that," O'Malley said in an interview last evening.

"There are those that feel there's a big vacuum in this race," he said. "Any number of people could fill that vacuum, I suppose, including the one [known] candidate, but so far I think that most people would agree there is a pretty big vacuum."

It is unclear whether O'Malley is seriously interested in the governor's race or simply hopes that he and his city can benefit from speculation about his future.

As a potential candidate, he wields influence in Annapolis on the eve of the annual legislative session, when the city seeks money for education, social services and other programs.

"The greatest hammer he has right now is using the leverage he has as a potential candidate," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a former Baltimore County executive. "You can go in and bargain for those things you want for the city."

It's easy to imagine the kind of horse-trading that could go on: You avoid a primary fight, Kathleen, if I can deliver for my city.

The mayor indicated last night that he won't make a decision until the middle of next year, after the legislative session has concluded.

"I'm kind of in a no-win situation. Whatever I say can be taken the wrong way," O'Malley said. "By making an affirmative decision not to decide right now, it means I don't have my words thrown back at me next summer, when the time's more ripe to decide something like this.

"And in the meantime, somebody else might emerge."

But as other possible Democratic candidates take a pass on the governor's race, O'Malley appears to be the only major potential challenger left standing. This week, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan announced he would seek re-election to a third term. Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger talks increasingly of running for Congress.

There is no indication that O'Malley is assembling a campaign organization or has begun the fund raising needed for a credible statewide race. At the same time, Townsend is raising millions and lining up supporters without a formal announcement of her candidacy.

But when he ran for mayor in 1999, O'Malley entered the race late and quickly overcame two weak challengers.

"I think he's much more methodical than some think," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. "I think Martin is thinking very carefully about whether to run for governor."

McIntosh is among those who would prefer to see him stay on as mayor. "There are people like me saying, `The city can't afford to lose you at this point.' "

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, an important backer of O'Malley in 1999 who is also supportive of Townsend, said he doesn't want the mayor to run for the same reasons, and doesn't believe he will.

"I would be extraordinarily surprised if after the 90-day session he announced that he's running for governor," said Rawlings, also a Baltimore Democrat. "I would be very much interested what elected officials - and maybe you don't need any - would be standing beside him when he makes that announcement. I wouldn't be one of them, even though I love the mayor."

Rawlings declined to say whether O'Malley had assured him he wouldn't run, but said he met with him about a month ago.

"We sat down and talked about some things. I mean, he could change his mind," he said. "To abandon [City Hall] would raise some issues about his integrity."

But others in O'Malley's camp are believed to be telling him that now is precisely the time for him to move on. The job of mayor can wear down a politician in the long run, with the unrelenting crime and economic problems.

Now, he is at perhaps the height of popularity, and there's no guarantee another opportunity - such as a U.S. Senate seat - will come open anytime soon for the ambitious politician.

O'Malley acknowledges that the "quandary" he faces is that he has a job left to do as mayor:

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