Saying his work in Baltimore is incomplete, Mayor Martin O'Malley announced yesterday that he will not be a candidate for governor this year - clearing the way for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to run unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
"There is no tougher fight, and no more noble cause, than the turnaround of a great American city," O'Malley said, adding that the decision to forgo the campaign was the most difficult of his political life.
FOR THE RECORD - An article and photo caption in yesterday's editions incorrectly identified Catherine O'Malley as a Baltimore circuit judge. She is a district judge.
"The risk of losing this particular race was really not something that intimidated me," he said.
"In the final battle between head and heart, my conscience just wouldn't allow me to take the risk that the hard work and sacrifices of these last 2 1/2 ... years might have been in vain."
In a 10-minute address that aides said he wrote himself, the mayor did not mention Townsend's name.
She is the only announced Democratic candidate and the front-runner in every poll to date.
O'Malley said he would support the Democratic nominee but made clear his disdain for Townsend by repeating his assertion that the state party suffers from a "vacuum of leadership."
His announcement removed the last apparent obstacle in Townsend's bid for the nomination and signaled the true start of this year's campaign.
Barring unforeseen developments, the Nov. 5 match will pit Townsend against U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Timonium Republican.
"Now the race is joined. The race is clear. There are two candidates," said Ehrlich, who immediately challenged the lieutenant governor to six televised debates and candidate forums.
Townsend said she was pleased with the mayor's decision, and she pledged to "work hard" for the city.
"I think it's great that we will work together to make sure Baltimore is the greatest city in Maryland and the greatest city in the country," she said.
Impact on candidates
O'Malley's announcement bolsters Townsend's candidacy by allowing her to save money for the general election while avoiding the potential damage of charges leveled during a primary fight.
For Ehrlich, the impact is mixed, political observers said. The Republican would have preferred to face an opponent scarred by three months of intensive intra-party campaigning.
But Ehrlich believes he can now tap financial supporters in the Baltimore-area business community who he says have been withholding donations until O'Malley made up his mind.
O'Malley's decision follows an intense push by the city's business and Democratic political leaders to persuade him to stay in City Hall.
The front man for an Irish rock band, with irrefutable charisma and a deep reservoir of ambition, O'Malley, 39, is credited with restoring hope and energy to teetering neighborhoods.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said she "begged" O'Malley not to enter the race.
"The truth is, if he left now, we'd say we had a promising young mayor there for a couple of years, but he didn't stay long enough to do the job," she said.
"We worked hard," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, referring to the effort to persuade the mayor to stay. "We had discussions. ... We are going to have a difficult race with the Republican nominee, and we need all hands on deck."
Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said, "A lot of people have made their desires known to him. I did it months ago."
Rawlings might have received one of the first signals that O'Malley was ready to skip the race.
On May 23, at a groundbreaking ceremony for the University of Maryland Dental School, O'Malley scribbled a list of "do's and don'ts" for the state's next governor and handed it to Rawlings. Among the requests: money for a Johns Hopkins biotechnology center, more drug treatment funding and increased aid for schools.
Rawlings gave the list to Townsend.
Building a bridge
"I wanted to be helpful in creating a bridge that the two of them could walk over together to victory," he said, adding that he expects the lieutenant governor to address the mayor's concerns.
"I think you will hear a responsiveness on her part, starting with [today's] speech" before a public policy group, he said.
Townsend campaign spokesman Michael Morrill said that there was no quid pro quo between the mayor and lieutenant governor over city funding issues and that Townsend supported most of the items on the mayor's list before seeing it.
Likewise, O'Malley denied yesterday that any pledge by Townsend or her supporters influenced his thinking.
"Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I was not promised financial or political support in the future in return for not running," the mayor said in his speech. "In the final analysis, my decision had a lot more to do with governing than politics."
O'Malley's pronouncement was cheered by members of Maryland's Democratic establishment, who said they were thrilled to avoid a bruising primary between rising political stars.