O'Malley should stay home this time

Divisive: If the Democratic mayor decides to run against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for governor in the primary, it would benefit Maryland Republicans.

January 06, 2002|By Herbert C. Smith | Herbert C. Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BACK IN the 1960s, California psychiatrist Eric Berne compiled a collection of games played by people who needed to grow up. His book, Games People Play, was a best seller and remains relevant today.

One game in particular should provide some guidance to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley in the coming months. Berne called it "Let's You and Him Fight." The variant that's urged on O'Malley these days would more accurately be labeled "Let's You and Her Fight." It's the notion that O'Malley should contest the Democratic gubernatorial nomination with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland's lieutenant governor since 1994.

Townsend's record, name, and campaign resources have persuaded most gubernatorial wannabes to seek their political fortunes elsewhere.

O'Malley remains the sole potential obstacle to a painless primary season. However, the mayor should stay the mayor for a variety of compelling reasons. First, it's too early to run for governor. Second, a divisive primary would benefit Maryland Republicans. And finally, Townsend in Government House would probably prove to be his new best friend and Baltimore's.

O'Malley's been mayor for two years. He came to office with the promise and pledge to stop Baltimore's bleeding, the figurative hemorrhage of continued middle class flight to the suburbs and the literal tally of corpses. In both areas he's worked hard to accomplish limited success but much remains to be done.

Although a second Baltimore renaissance seems promising, the process requires continued nurturing. The secret of effective governance is persistence and tenacity.

As mayor, William Donald Schaefer fully understood that. "Baltimore is Best" became his mantra, and after repeated incantations, many in Baltimore subscribed. When Schaefer decided to run for governor in 1986, most voters readily accepted his bona fides in transforming Baltimore. The idea that he could do for Maryland what he had done for Baltimore was an easy sell. But it took Schaefer 15 years to accomplish that.

The essential component of any campaign is the fundamental "why." The candidate must be able to articulate the reason for seeking office in a simple and relatively self-explanatory way. In 1978, Harry Hughes offered a program of reform in contrast to the scandal-ridden Marvin Mandel years. Schaefer had his Baltimore success story in 1986. In 1994, Parris N. Glendening provided a resume of local executive experience and detailed plans for improvements in economic development, environmental protection, and secondary and higher education. All three governors had a history of extensive public service.

Maryland, despite its progressive policies, has what historian Robert Brugger termed "a middle temperament." That means there's an underlying respect for certain conventions and traditions that permeate our politics.

This translates into candidates paying their dues in appreciable apprenticeships of public service. Take our two U.S. senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski. Sarbanes served a term in the Maryland House of Delegates, then three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before winning a Senate seat in 1976. Mikulski followed a similar pattern with five years of service on the Baltimore City Council and five terms in the House of Representatives before her successful Senate run in 1986.

With only one abbreviated term as mayor and two terms as a member of the City Council, the problem for an O'Malley gubernatorial bid is in its fundamental rationale. He would be running because in his heart of hearts he believed he would be a better governor than Townsend. But by necessity, that would come down to the elements of ego and ambition. Both are vital and necessary for political life, but deadly if that's all there is. To compete, O'Malley would be forced to go negative early and often. She would respond with equal force and critical vigor. It would be a political war within the Maryland Democratic Party the likes of which we haven't witnessed since 1966.

Who would win? Probably Townsend because her support among female and African-American voters would be exceptionally difficult to diminish. She would be the first woman governor in state history, and that means something special to female Democratic voters.

For blacks, support for the Kennedys is equally historic. Townsend's uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was our first chief executive to commit himself to the cause of civil rights, proclaiming that "race has no place in American life or law." As U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, Townsend's father, energetically intervened in desegregating Southern schools. The lieutenant governor has reinforced these ties with black communities across the state.

But upsets do happen. Through political accidents and luck, O'Malley might emerge the Democratic nominee. But, given the negative campaign he would have to wage and endure, it wouldn't be that much of a prize.

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