Duncan backs Townsend in governor's race

Montgomery executive's endorsement seen as key in Democratic primary

May discourage others

GOP hopeful Ehrlich courts labor by backing drilling-pension proposal

April 18, 2002|By Howard Libit and Michael Dresser | Howard Libit and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING - Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's campaign for governor won the backing of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan yesterday, a significant boost to her quest to keep the Democratic primary clear of opposition.

Duncan made his endorsement after rebuffing a last-minute entreaty for a delay from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. O'Malley, who is considering a run for governor, had hoped to keep open the chance to secure Duncan's support.

"Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is clearly the best person for Montgomery County to have in the governor's office," Duncan said, standing amid the state-supported redevelopment of Silver Spring. "The lieutenant governor understands the future success of the Maryland economy is linked to Montgomery County and vice versa."

Meanwhile, yesterday in Baltimore County, likely GOP gubernatorial nominee Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. went trolling for support from traditionally Democratic union members, endorsing a proposal to rescue steelworkers' pension funds through royalties from oil drilling in the Alaskan tundra.

Ehrlich, a Baltimore County congressman seeking the Republican nomination for governor, held a news conference with representatives of the Teamsters union in a parking lot outside the Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point.

Duncan's endorsement had been seen as crucial by Townsend and O'Malley. Though most Montgomery lawmakers have endorsed Townsend, an O'Malley endorsement from the politically popular county executive could have given a big boost to the mayor in Maryland's most populous jurisdiction.

"It's hard to overstate the significance of this endorsement," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery Democrat who attended yesterday's announcement. "Doug Duncan is such a dominant and popular figure in Montgomery County. ... It's now a very uphill battle if anyone decides to try to challenge the lieutenant governor in the primary."

Duncan - who had flirted with the idea of his own run for governor before deciding to seek a third term as county executive - spent more than five hours meeting with Townsend and taking her on a quasi-campaign swing through Montgomery, which is seen as a battleground for the fall election.

"Montgomery County is the economic powerhouse of this state," Townsend said. "Doug Duncan is an extraordinary leader who I am so pleased to have on my team."

Townsend is expected to formally enter the governor's race May 5. Duncan said that Ehrlich's announcement last month hastened his own timetable for making an endorsement .

"When Ehrlich announced he was running, that kind of changed some things," Duncan said. "We now have a serious Republican opponent, so it was time for us to come together and support one candidate."

Noting that Duncan's announcement was set for the same day as his own big fund-raiser, O'Malley visited the executive's Rockville office Monday and asked him to put off an endorsement.

Duncan said he told O'Malley he had not yet decided whether to endorse the lieutenant governor during yesterday's tour - but he also recommended that O'Malley opt out of the governor's race and finish the job he set out to do in Baltimore.

Duncan met with Townsend privately yesterday morning for more than an hour. "I've had a great relationship with the lieutenant governor for a while," he said. "She will do very well by Montgomery County."

In eastern Baltimore County, Ehrlich praised a proposal before the Senate to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, a move opposed by environmental groups. Ehrlich said the plan would affect about 2,000 of the 19.6 million acres of the area's coastal plain.

"It's economic security, it's national security and it's jobs and it's all interrelated," he said.

The news conference was billed as a legislative event, but Ehrlich effectively dared Townsend to use his support for the contentious drilling proposal as an issue. "This issue could cut both ways, but it's the right thing to do," he said.

Supporters of the drilling plan have linked it with a bailout of failed steel industry health and pension plans in an effort to win votes from steel-state senators - including Maryland's Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes. A vote could come as early as today.

Ehrlich defended the strategy of linking the issues, saying the move answers a challenge from President Bush to find new revenue sources to rescue the steelworkers' benefit plans. Backers say a proposed amendment to a pro-drilling energy bill would yield $7 billion over 30 years to cover "legacy costs" of a shrinking U.S. steel industry.

Jerry Hood, a special assistant to Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, said that about 82,000 retired steel industry retirees have lost their health and pension benefits and that the numbers are increasing.

"Without new sources of revenue, that money is not going to be there," Hood said. "Don't pin your hopes on a pipe dream. Pin them on a pipeline."

Sue Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said Ehrlich's position comes as no surprise in light of his environmental record - which her organization gives the lowest ranking in the state congressional delegation.

"It's not a good deal for the environment, and it is not going over with Maryland voters, who have said in poll after poll that they do not support drilling in a national refuge," Brown said.

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