Martin O'Malley says he's committed to running for a second term as mayor of Baltimore -- no matter who his opponents might turn out to be or when the Democratic primary will be held. Both questions remain unanswered, although clues have recently begun to emerge.
Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway recently announced that he would challenge O'Malley in the primary, which is set for September next year. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have said they hope to shift the primary date to March 2004 so it will be closer to the election in November of that year.
Conaway -- who placed a distant third in the 1999 primary for City Council president -- is viewed by some as a long shot. But his announcement raised a larger question:
Who might run against O'Malley?
"There are plenty of people, particularly in the African-American community, who think that O'Malley is vulnerable," said Julius Henson, a political consultant who advised Lawrence A. Bell III, an unsuccessful 1999 mayoral candidate.
Some blacks make the argument that they should reclaim the city's top job, which was held by black mayors for 12 years before O'Malley was elected in 1999.
But Henson notes that someone well known would have to step forward to launch an effective challenge. "O'Malley is an incumbent, he's popular, he gets lots of media attention. And unless there is a top-tier candidate to challenge him, it's going to be all O'Malley," Henson said.
One top city official who has ruled herself out of the race is City Council President Sheila Dixon. She said in a recent interview that she wants to be mayor someday, but will not run against O'Malley, whom she regards as an ally.
"Martin is running for re-election, and I am not running against Martin," said Dixon. "I think he's a very strong candidate, and I think the partnership we've developed has helped the city."
Several people are rumored to be considering a run for mayor, including: City Comptroller Joan Pratt; state Sen. Joan Carter Conway; State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy; Rep. Elijah E. Cummings; Stuart O. Simms, the state secretary of public safety and correctional services; and Andrey L. Bundley, principal of Walbrook High School.
Most of these people say it's too early to announce their intentions.
"I have no idea who will run," said O'Malley. "I'm preparing for a tough challenge, but I don't know whom it will come from."
O'Malley said he deserves re-election because his administration has made solid progress in fighting violent crime, which has dropped 28 percent in three years -- an annual rate of reduction that the mayor says is even greater than that achieved by former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Looking over the field of potential mayoral challengers, State Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, a key supporter of O'Malley's in 1999, said he believes that Cummings, the newly elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, might beat O'Malley if Cummings decides to run.
Cummings said recently that he's not planning a run for mayor but hasn't ruled one out.
"It's not something I think about," said Cummings. "We have so many national issues we have to address right now, and that's what I'm focused on."
If Cummings is out of the picture, Rawlings said, Jessamy -- who won re-election in November by a wide margin despite harsh criticism of her competence from the mayor -- might prove the most dangerous threat to O'Malley.
"Three years ago, she was searching for support to run for mayor. And this time, she has a very formidable election victory behind her -- which she accomplished without the support of O'Malley," said Rawlings. "And she probably could interpret her victory as a [public] statement against his criticism of her."
Jessamy's spokeswoman, Margaret Burns, released a statement saying that Jessamy has many supporters "who foresee a bright political future for all of her political endeavors."
Pratt, an accountant elected city comptroller in 1995, said she is considering a challenge to O'Malley.
Pratt said O'Malley deserves only a "C+" grade as mayor because he has focused almost exclusively on law enforcement and has done nothing to prevent the recent financial crisis and layoffs in the school system.
"Education is a big problem in this city," said Pratt. "The mayor wants to control the court system and Pat Jessamy. But he's not saying anything about education, and that just doesn't make any sense."
Anyone hoping to defeat O'Malley will have to overcome several hurdles, according to political veterans.
He had more than $1 million in his campaign fund as of Nov. 19, the most recent reporting date.
77% approval rating
And he enjoyed a 77 percent approval rating in the latest opinion poll, in July, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc. research company.
"O'Malley has approval numbers that are as high or higher than any mayor in modern times," Haller said.
But O'Malley has plenty of enemies, too.
He is likely to face strong opposition from the city's labor unions, who want to hand him a pink slip as payback for his elimination of 260 jobs and shift toward privatization of city services, said Glen Middleton Sr., president of AFSCME Local 44.
"Any candidate would be better than Martin O'Malley," said Middleton.
"Believe me, we will be very active in the next mayor's race," he said.