Measuring the O'Malley draft movement

April 21, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

STREET TALK:

He's in.

Really?

Absolutely. He's the best pure political talent Maryland ever saw. Awesome and getting better. He thinks he can be president.

He can't stay out. He can't let other people compete for his future.

He thinks he can be president.

They're talking Martin O'Malley, the young mayor of Baltimore. By all appearances, the street talk is right: The green-and-white lapel stickers that used to say O'Malley for mayor, for change and for reform? They don't have the word "mayor" in them any more.

So he's in until or unless he gets out. The only consideration? He's wrestling with his conscience. He knows he hasn't finished the job he ran for in Baltimore.

How, then, could he run? Insiders say he could decide the job can't be done without a cooperative and fully committed Baltimore-friendly governor. He's the best hope for that. So he's in.

He won't announce for some time, but he's on the campaign circuit. All the body language says he's in. And it's not just his body language.

It's the language of the body politic. You could hear it at a reception in Chestertown. Or at the Stoney Creek Democratic Club in Anne Arundel County, where 400 or so blue-collar Dems stood and cheered. They wanted his autograph. Maybe they could see him as president someday and wanted to say they'd known him when ... wanted the evidence.

At a Little Italy restaurant, a group of Baltimore business guys gave him their autographs - on $35,000 in campaign contribution checks.

Del. Sue Hecht, a Democratic candidate for state senator in conservative Frederick County, got him to introduce her at a campaign event in her county. She wanted a star, someone whose appeal crossed party lines. So she had Mr. O'Malley, the tough-on-crime, tart-tongued liberal Democrat.

In Carroll County, a party leader said she'd have to leave the party's front-runner, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, if the mayor of Baltimore were to run.

On Wednesday night, he raised $1 million at a Ravens Stadium fund-raiser. He said he hadn't decided about running. But he said he has decided one thing: He can win. That much he said. It's more than bravado, more than the reflexive political declaration of confidence.

He hears what the political community of Maryland hears. People aren't sold on Ms. Townsend. They'd like to have an alternative. After eight years as the second in command of Maryland government, Ms. Townsend hasn't made the sale. Polling data suggest that difficult issues have taken their toll on her once presumptive ascension.

Then the street talk resumes: He looks more like a Kennedy than she does. They pull a frown when you talk about the "Maryland Loves Kathleen" bumper stickers.

Ms. Townsend's many admirers, including many Democratic office holders, think Mr. O'Malley won't run. They don't say she's better. They say he won't run. It's their platform - or their prayer.

So the mayor and his men sit in their chambers and wonder: Is this really happening? Is lightning really striking twice in such a short period? A political dead letter two years ago, Martin O'Malley saw a weak field and entered the race for mayor.

He figured Baltimoreans wanted strong leadership and someone who would focus on crime and drugs. He won with an impressive 54 percent of the vote. Since then, he's begun to bring the murder rate down - and his own aura has brightened at almost every step.

He's made blunders, too. In a rant laced with profanity, he criticized the city's state's attorney, a black woman. The demographic profile of a voter in Baltimore is a black woman over 40, so that target could hurt him. At the same time, though, the signature O'Malley impatience almost always wins more votes than it loses.

Ms. Townsend has tremendous support among black voters - so much so that common wisdom said it gave her an insurmountable head start. One political leader, torn between the O'Malley and Townsend camps, says he's been dispatched to promise that influential black leaders will help Mr. O'Malley govern if he stays out of the race. What a statement!

So the game this year involves a bit of nuanced poll watching. What happens after May 5, when Ms. Townsend announces her candidacy officially? Will there be an even more urgent interest in O'Malley-for-governor sentiment?

Already, though, he's riding a wave of conscience-soothing public support, and not merely on the push of his considerable ambition.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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