Assembly ends, campaign opens for candidates

Legal curbs, ethics issues of session over, hopefuls free to seek allies, funds

`Time to kick into high gear'

Political open season requires organizing, preparing for primary

April 14, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

When the State House clock hit midnight Monday, it tripped an alarm that is ringing through the Maryland political community.

With the General Assembly session over, the campaigning for this year's statewide elections can begin. Candidates are emerging for the state's eight congressional seats and 47 legislative districts, forging alliances and crafting slates.

And the race for Maryland governor, expected to be one of the most closely watched of its kind in the nation, starts in earnest.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will formally announce her entry in that race May 5, making the transition from Gov. Parris N. Glendening's loyal partner to full-fledged Democratic candidate.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the likely Republican nominee, is a few weeks ahead. He declared his candidacy late last month and has turned to nuts-and-bolts tasks such as organizing volunteers and drafting position papers.

"It is definitely political open season now, no question about it," said David S. Weaver, an aide to Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

"Politics goes on year-round, but in an election year, after a legislative session, now it's time to kick into high gear for everybody, from the top of the ticket down to courthouse candidates."

The legislative session's end is a starter pistol for a couple of reasons.

One is legal. Legislators and the state's constitutional officers, such as the governor, are prevented from raising money during the 90-day lawmaking session. The money is flowing again, and invitations for golf outings and bull-and-oyster roasts are landing in mailboxes everywhere.

In addition, politicians don't want their career intentions clouding the perception of their motives in Annapolis. Lawmakers looking to pass bills or county executives seeking money want to appear to be working on behalf of the voters who elected them, not on their advancement.

So for months, when Townsend was asked when she would announce her candidacy, the answer was the same: after the session. Likewise, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said he was waiting until after midnight Monday to decide whether he'll launch a primary challenge to Townsend.

For well-organized politicians, the three-month period between the close of the legislature and the Election Board's July 1 filing deadline is a critical span. Candidates need time to get organized and funded before the lazy summer months, when few voters pay attention to politics.

Primary preparation

And because primaries often determine the election winner, candidates need to be prepared for the Sept. 10 party vote.

"Part of the pressure is to get a campaign going before the dog days of the summer hit," said Theodore G. Venetoulis, a former Baltimore County executive and one-time candidate for governor.

Still, mailboxes won't start filling with glossy brochures and television commercials won't start running just yet.

For the next few weeks, campaigns and campaigners will be organizing, raising money, collecting endorsements and making appearances.

Townsend has a skeleton campaign staff of four workers. After the formal announcement - scheduled for a Sunday in Annapolis so parents can attend with their children - that number will grow. Some of her top aides, such as Chief of Staff Alan H. Fleischmann, will have to leave their state jobs if they want to devote their working hours to getting their boss elected.

The lieutenant governor is proceeding with her quiet pre-campaign.

She will spend Wednesday in Montgomery, where she and Duncan will tour the renovated Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, a redevelopment area in Silver Spring and a technology company in the Interstate 270 corridor.

But after May 5, said Townsend aide William Mann, the lieutenant governor will become increasingly visible, offering her view of the state and its future, which will sometimes contrast with Glendening's.

Townsend as candidate "is going to be the easier phase," Mann said. "It's harder to be the lieutenant governor and not always be able to talk about your passions and priorities."

Ehrlich is organizing volunteers in nearly every county and putting together advisory groups to draft position papers on issues including transportation, crime and education.

Exciting period

"This is one of the most exciting periods for a statewide campaign: organizing at the grass-roots level, refining policy positions, raising money and getting ready," said Paul E. Schurick, Ehlrich's political director.

Since Ehrlich's long-awaited announcement, "there has been a torrent of unsolicited volunteers, money, ideas - resources of all kinds," Schurick said.

Important decisions remain unmade, however, that will have a large effect on the state's political landscape. Townsend and Ehrlich must select running mates. They aren't close to announcing their choices.

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