Mayor's future topic of debate

O'Malley's remarks keep speculation alive over run for governor

March 21, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein and Sarah Koenig | Gady A. Epstein and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

With Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. apparently in the race for governor, the speculation surrounding the future of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley grows more intense. And yesterday, the mayor added kerosene to the fire, saying he would enter the race if the state's top Democrats don't start behaving like Democrats.

"If it continues to look like the Democratic Party is undergoing a transformation to become Republicans, then I'll run," O'Malley said, complaining that Democratic leaders would prefer to cut taxes than fund education, public health programs and fighting crime.

"Is that a party I want to support? I don't think so. So people better wake up, they better step up, they better stop acting like Republicans and start acting like the leaders that the people of this state expect us to be."

So, is he running? Should he?

O'Malley's comments yesterday, though tantalizing, answered nothing. And when it comes to O'Malley and the 2002 governor's race, political leaders and political junkies are dissecting the mayor's every move, and everybody has a theory.

"The other day, a lobbyist came up to me as I was walking into the State House and said, `I just got off the phone with one of my clients. O'Malley's definitely running!' " said Baltimore Del. Maggie L. McIntosh. "Then later that day someone else came up to me and said, `He's definitely not.'

"I just love the back and forth, back and forth."

So, surely, does O'Malley, who has come to Annapolis so many times this legislative session and opined so frequently on the state budget, he's all but taped a giant question mark to his back. And by making provocative remarks as he did yesterday, while making clear that he won't announce a decision until well after the session, he's successfully created an air of mystery.

"The fact that when I speak out it gets more media attention because of gubernatorial speculation is a fact I can't change," the mayor said recently. "I haven't decided what I'm going to do, but I'm not going to keep my mouth shut in the meantime."

But will he or won't he? In divining the 39-year-old O'Malley's future, it's all about reading the tea leaves.

Take his recent (and often unsolicited) soliloquies in favor of raising taxes. Some speculate he's advertising his progressive side statewide. "I think he's trying to set his Democratic credentials, to appeal to the core Democratic electorate," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat.

Others say such a position is hardly the stuff of a statewide platform. "If you're going to run for governor, you don't call for an increase in taxes," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat. "That's like Fritz Mondale at his worst."

O'Malley says his budgetary criticism is part of the role of a mayor advocating for his city and shrugs off the political chatter - all the while ratcheting up the rhetoric.

"We just have a real disagreement on the best way to confront difficult choices," O'Malley said. "I think that when you have tough times, that's when you expect leaders to step up to the plate and tell the truth. [The people] expect honest answers and they expect honest solutions, and hopefully one day they'll get them."

Of course when people like Miller get publicly angry about O'Malley's various comments ("Governing is more than a pretty face and a sound bite," Miller quipped), it only heightens the mayor's visibility.

The budget talk isn't the only subject of the buzz. There's the fact that O'Malley quietly resisted legislation to align city election dates with the state's - a switch that could have forced him to choose between being mayor and running for governor in 2006.

Some of the curious are also trying to read meaning into occasions that may have no meaning at all, such as the mayor's meeting last week with his old friend Gary Hart. Some point to other intriguing mayoral doings, such as his recent speech at a Carroll County dinner and his previous references to a "vacuum" of leadership.

And how about his big fund-raiser at Ravens stadium next month, in which he's expected to raise more than $1 million? Some say it's a clue that he's looking at a statewide run: "You don't need as much money as he's projecting to raise to win re-election in the city," says former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

He also has a much smaller fund-raiser in Washington next month, and one planned for the Eastern Shore later this month also raises eyebrows. "Chestertown?" asked Del. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat. "It sounds like he's running for governor to me. Do you think he's running?"

Then again, she and some others say, maybe he's just capitalizing on his popularity. After all, sometimes a fund-raiser is just a fund-raiser.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat, has bought tickets to two O'Malley fund-raisers, including one Sunday at Hammerjacks.

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