A `kind of goofy' state haunts city's primary

Separation: Unless changed by the legislature, voters would choose party candidates next year and not vote in the general election until 14 months later.

January 13, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

BALTIMORE'S next mayoral election isn't until November 2004. But the real election is in September 2003. That's when the Democratic primary is scheduled to be held, and in the city, the Democratic primary is all that counts, thanks to an overwhelming Democratic Party advantage in voter registration.

No kidding. The city primaries, as now scheduled, are to be held more than a year before the general election. Imagine Mayor Martin O'Malley running for re-election and losing in the 2003 primary, then hanging around as a lame duck for 14 months, with a mayor-in-waiting setting up a shadow administration.

"It would be kind of goofy," O'Malley said. "It'd be like having two mayors for a long, long time."

City officials and lawmakers are trying to fix this glitch in the electoral matrix, but that's no easy trick: Although city voters control the date of the general election, state law dictates when the city holds its primaries. And state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, perhaps the most powerful member of the General Assembly, has told politicians he doesn't like the general election date the city has chosen for itself - so he has blocked attempts by city lawmakers to change the primary date.

The situation is a headache for city officials.

"We need to get a definitive answer," said City Council President Sheila Dixon. "It would be good to know what year do we have, are we going to run in, and right now it's in [Miller's] hands."

Many city politicians assume that after making them sweat - maybe until early next year - Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, will allow the city primary date to be changed. For now, Miller isn't revealing his cards. In an interview last week, he distanced himself from the issue, saying it's not on his mind in a session when he has to contend with a tight state budget and other pressing issues.

"I haven't talked to the city senators about it; I haven't talked to the mayor about it," he said. "It's a local issue with statewide ramifications ... [but] it's not my issue, believe it or not. It is not my issue."

However, city politicians say Miller is the man they must deal with on the primary. And City Councilman Robert W. Curran, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat who championed the 1999 charter amendment that changed the general election date, met with the Senate president last year to lobby him.

"I said, `Mike, you know this is a home rule issue,'" Curran said. "Why should a senator from [Prince George's] County be concerned with what the election cycle is in a local government, Baltimore City government?"

In previous interviews, Miller has made clear that he wants city elections aligned with state gubernatorial elections, not with the presidential election.

His stated reasoning is that a city election would bring out as many as 20,000 more voters in the gubernatorial race, and since city voters are predominantly Democratic, that would help the Democratic candidate for governor. "He has good intentions" for the Democratic Party, Curran said.

But political insiders say that Miller and other Democratic politicians have more on their mind than turning out voters in the governor's race. Fund raising is a major concern. Council and mayoral candidates now get first shot at campaign contributions under the state campaign finance system.

Because city and state campaign donation limits run on the same four-year cycle , contributors who are "maxed out" at the end of a governor's race can start giving anew the next year - when City Council and mayoral candidates are charging up their campaigns. That eats up potential dollars that state legislators and gubernatorial candidates would like to have when they are charging up.

Also, by running on the presidential cycle instead of the state election timetable, city officials get a "free shot" at state offices. For example, any elected city official can run for a state legislative seat without stepping down from office.

This is the same reason O'Malley has more flexibility in deciding whether to run for governor next year. If he runs and loses, he might be tarnished politically, but he's still mayor until at least 2004.

Unless, that is, the city were to cave in to Miller and move to change the general election back to 2003 - an unlikely prospect.

"I'll run a year early, or they can move it back," O'Malley said. "I don't have any emotional attachment one way or the other."

O'Malley said that as a councilman in 1999, he voted to put the 2004 election date on the ballot for city voters that year out of courtesy to Curran, who is from the same Northeast Baltimore district and is his wife's uncle.

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