Baltimore unions and community groups are campaigning against a bill to move the city's municipal primary election to March 2004, saying incumbents would have too much of an advantage against new candidates.
In a hearing yesterday before the House Ways and Means Committee, opponents of holding a March 2004 primary asked lawmakers to move the city's primary to September 2004 to give new candidates sufficient time in the summer to campaign and to avoid a nine-month lull between the two votes.
"We have a chance to change the politics-as-usual in the city of Baltimore," said Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union Local 44.
State lawmakers must act this session to correct a glitch that was created when Baltimore voters passed a referendum to move the municipal general elections to coincide with presidential elections.
Although the state constitution gives local jurisdictions the authority to set the date of their general election, only the General Assembly has the power to determine the date of the primary.
Baltimore's primary is scheduled this September. If it is not changed, the city would have to wait 14 months for the general election. Although making the change seems simple, the political wrangling over when to hold the primary threatens to leave Baltimore in an election mess.
Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration wants to move the primary to March 2004, and city legislators have introduced measures to that effect in both houses of the General Assembly.
But Del. Jill P. Carter, a freshman Northeast Baltimore Democrat, filed an alternate proposal, backed by unions and community groups, to move the primary to September 2004.
Testifying in favor of the mayor's bill, Deputy Mayor Jeanne D. Hitchcock said a March 2004 city primary, coinciding with the presidential primary vote, would reduce the city's election costs by $500,000. Moving the primary to September 2004 would provide no savings, she said.
"This bill is to make the alignment perfect," Hitchcock testified. "This is an alignment that makes good public policy sense."
Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of the city's House delegation, said after the hearing that she understands the community concerns as well as the need to reduce costs. As a compromise, Marriott said, she is considering a proposal to shift the city's municipal primary and the state's presidential primary to May 2004.
Such a proposal could face stiff opposition because it would affect all state voters instead of just those in Baltimore. Maryland used to hold its presidential primary in May, but changed it to Super Tuesday in March to raise the state's profile.
"We're still not getting the media attention, which is the reason we chose Super Tuesday to begin with," Marriott said.
Middleton and members of such community groups as ACORN and Community and Labor United for Baltimore told the committee yesterday that a September primary would prevent lame-duck city officials from sitting in office for months.
"It's like you're working in a bank and they fire you for doing a bad job, and then they leave you in the job for another year," said Bill Goodin, a Northeast Baltimore activist.
The issue has been of particular interest to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who wants the city elections held the same year as gubernatorial contests, in the even years opposite presidential races.
Such a change would save election costs, increase voter turnout and prevent city officials from having a free shot at state office without losing their seat in Baltimore, Miller says.