As Townsend, O'Malley appear less like rivals, common issues emerge

March 17, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MAYBE PEACE slowly dawns among the Democrats. In public, Martin O'Malley fumes about lack of State House "leadership," but in private, he and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend are finally talking. In public, O'Malley decries Annapolis' insensitivity toward Baltimore. But in private, he and Townsend have exchanged letters indicating they are philosophically simpatico.

All of this occurs as O'Malley decides if he'll stay at City Hall or run for governor. For eight months, he and Townsend kept a silent distance, O'Malley insisting his city was getting short-changed by state leaders - clearly casting a cold eye Townsend's way - and the lieutenant governor biding her time and hoping O'Malley's temper would cool.

Early last month, O'Malley left a telephone message for Townsend. She quickly called him back. In such diplomatic maneuvering, manners count. The two spoke briefly, but cordially enough. The sound barrier was broken, and so was some of the sense of antagonism. O'Malley is worried about money to fight drugs in the city. So is Townsend. He's worried about money to fight gun crimes. So is she. He's worried about lead paint money. So is she.

But O'Malley wants to hear Townsend say it more emphatically in public, wants a sense that she and other Democrats haven't given up their party's commitment to the poor, and to beleaguered cities such as Baltimore.

A few weeks ago, Townsend invited O'Malley to join her on a trip to Atlanta. The suggestion came from Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is impressed by low-cost housing efforts there and wonders if they might work in Baltimore. In O'Malley's response to Townsend, a letter dated Feb. 21, he refers to her "kind invitation," adding, "I appreciate your offer to work together." The language is gracious. O'Malley also lists 10 areas of concern where "I need your help" - including drugs, guns, lead paint, welfare money, and impoverished families.

Townsend, writing back within 24 hours, declares "many of [our] priorities in synch." Her letter is sprinkled with such inviting phrases as "welcome your support," "working together," and "working with you." Though O'Malley says he's too busy to make the trip to Atlanta now, she invites him to join her any time after the General Assembly session end.

What we have here, besides careful parsing of phrases, is a distinct difference in tone between the public and private language of the two political leaders. Maybe it signals the beginning of peace among these two Democrats. Maybe it also signals that O'Malley is beginning to lean toward staying in Baltimore - though the mayor still says he hasn't made up his mind on running for governor.

His concerns are twofold: for his city and for his political future. He and Townsend come from the same philosophical backgrounds - they believe government should help those in trouble - but O'Malley sees a national Democratic drift from that thinking. He argues that he might help the city more as governor than as mayor. William Donald Schaefer once felt the same way. Then he discovered how much good intentions are dictated by economic conditions.

It is no secret that O'Malley has higher political ambitions. As he should. But for all the promise of the first two years of his administration, it is still only a two-year record. A run for governor would seem premature to many observers and a gesture of betrayal to those who voted for the mayor but didn't imagine he might leave so quickly.

Meanwhile, there are the findings of one private poll, now drifting through political circles, showing Townsend with commanding leads among most of the state's Democratic voters.

While O'Malley and Townsend make their way toward some version of peace, the Republican Robert Ehrlich sends signals that - barring pressure from Washington - he will give up his congressional seat for a campaign for governor. That's a pretty gutsy move. It endangers a slim Republican margin on Capitol Hill, and it leaves Ehrlich with an uphill battle in a state with overwhelming Democratic voter registration.

Private polls show Townsend leading Ehrlich - not only among women and minorities, where she's expected to poll well, but among white men. In a state that has consistently shown liberal political instincts, Ehrlich would have to defend conservative positions on the environment, gun control, Medicare and Medicaid, and on funding for education and child care.

Peace may be dawning among the Democrats. But serious campaign war seems to be arriving with the Republicans.

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