A primary too soon will hurt Baltimore

ASAP: More than scheduling hangs on controversy over when Baltimore voters go to the polls.

January 22, 2002

IF IT WEREN'T so serious, a belly laugh would be in order.

Right now, Republicans and Democrats in Baltimore will go to the polls in their respective local primaries in September 2003 - and then wait more than a year to vote in the general election.

Very funny. Here's another way for politicians to look inept. But wait. Under the surface of a silly dispute over election dates lie important political concerns for a city that needs all the help it can get.

The city sets its own general election date, but state law determines when primary elections are held. The city chose to change its general election date to 2004, making it coincide with presidential, not gubernatorial, election years.

That change angered state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who thinks Baltimore should want to accommodate Annapolis Democrats since it needs so much financial help from them. Mr. Miller also thinks city officials have given themselves unseemly advantages, including a pay raise that takes council members to $48,000 a year, about $17,000 a year more than state legislators are paid. (A pending pay raise would take delegates and senators from $31,509 to $43,500 in 2006. The pay of the House speaker and Senate president would rise from $41,509 to $56,500.)

But the dispute revolves primarily around political party power.

Mr. Miller says Baltimore elections were taken out of the state election cycle a half century ago when Republicans, then running the state, wanted to keep the machine-led Democratic throng out of their political hair when governors were being chosen: No city election, no huge Democratic turnout to influence a governor's race.

Times have changed, of course. The machines are gone, more or less, and Baltimore's vote power wanes. With an 8-1 voter registration edge over Republicans, the city can still expect respect from Democrats who would be hard-pressed to win without it. Nevertheless, city leaders might want to reconsider their decision to stay away from the gubernatorial election years.

In the short term, the Senate president should follow through quickly on his pledge to move the primary date closer to the General Election in 2004. Then maybe Baltimore won't be featured on late-night talk shows as the only city in America with two mayors at the same time: That could happen, in effect, if a mayoral nominee were not the same person as the incumbent who still had a year to serve.

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