O'Malley's endorsing gets mixed reviews

Critics say mayor refuses to be on Townsend's team

others see wise strategy

Election 2002

September 22, 2002|By Tom Pelton and David Nitkin | Tom Pelton and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Some state Democrats grumble that Mayor Martin O'Malley's failure to throw his political star power behind his party's struggling candidate for governor shows he's not a team player - which could come back to haunt him.

They say O'Malley, an enormously popular and charismatic leader, should turn on his rock-singer charm to campaign vigorously for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who polls show is in a virtual tie with her Republican challenger, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

O'Malley has endorsed Townsend - but he has had few public appearances with her and has not praised her leadership abilities.

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said he called O'Malley last week to urge him to be more supportive.

"He ought to re-endorse her," said Schaefer, a former governor and mayor. "He ought to make a couple of appearances with her in Baltimore City. Whenever she comes to Baltimore, he ought to make sure he's there. ... He could turn on the charm. That's all he has to do."

But others say O'Malley's nonendorsement endorsement of Townsend is a clever strategy. They suggest that O'Malley is trying to force Townsend to promise more financial support for city programs.

Using political leverage to squeeze promises out of candidates is an age-old strategy. But it's all the more important for the city this year because the state budget shortfall could bring the ax down hard on Baltimore, city officials worry.

"As any mayor of any city, you want firm commitments on what [candidates] are going to do for your city," said City Council President Sheila Dixon.

"And I don't think [Townsend] has done that for Martin," Dixon said. "I understand that some commitments have been made to other county executives who have endorsed [Townsend]."

Pointing the finger

The debate about what role - if any - O'Malley should play in the election of a woman he long considered challenging for his party's nomination, comes after a meeting last week during which the state's top elected Democrats planned the rescue of her flagging campaign.

Worried about public opinion polls showing Townsend's once double-digit lead over her opponent has vanished, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer pointed the rhetorical finger at O'Malley and other lukewarm supporters and demanded that they show their loyalty to the Democratic party.

In public, O'Malley denies that he's anything but a strong supporter of his party's candidate for governor.

But the lack of enthusiasm in his voice - and the uncharacteristically terse wording of his statements - suggest otherwise. Before he announced his decision not to run for governor June 5, he repeatedly questioned the "leadership vacuum" at the top of his party.

"I'm for the lieutenant governor and unreservedly so, with enthusiasm," O'Malley said Friday in a soft monotone. "Whenever she comes to Baltimore, I'll stand beside her and do what she wants me to do."

The mayor added that he thinks Townsend would fare better in the election if she made more promises to increase funding for city transportation, law enforcement and economic development projects. He also wants the savings from the state's welfare reform efforts to be returned to the city, not sent to wealthy suburban areas.

"I think this would be helpful for her campaign because I think it's important to talk about things that matter to the people of Baltimore City," said O'Malley. "It's not a personality contest. She should make a commitment not to balance the budget on the back of local government."

Dixon said she's taking the same position that she believes O'Malley has assumed, endorsing Townsend but not working hard to get out the vote for her until Townsend guarantees "in blood" to provide more money for city programs. Dixon wants guarantees about money for AIDS prevention, crime fighting and an urban teacher training program at Coppin State College, among other projects.

O'Malley's appearances with Townsend have been limited.

The mayor stood by Townsend's side and wore one of her campaign stickers during a festival in Druid Hill Park on Aug. 31, praising her pledge to give $30 million for drug treatment programs in the city.

And he stood beside her during a news conference Sept. 6 at a city recreation center, thanking her for promising to assign 10 probation agents to help monitor young violent offenders in the city.

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said that for decades, mayors have demanded specific financial promises from gubernatorial candidates.

In 1994 Schmoke endorsed the gubernatorial bid of the Prince George's County executive, Parris N. Glendening, over that of the sitting lieutenant governor, Melvin A. Steinberg, because Glendening was willing to make more specific promises to fund city programs.

"If [O'Malley] is simply negotiating commitments on behalf of the city, it's a very wise thing for him to do," said Schmoke.

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