Plan for city primary date is at impasse

Senate president issues ultimatum to lawmakers to back his proposal

April 02, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

A struggle between Mayor Martin O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has created a stalemate in the General Assembly over a date for Baltimore's next mayoral election.

With less than a week left in the legislative session, lawmakers are unable to agree on moving the municipal primary from this September to a date closer to the November general election next year -- leaving open the chance of a 14-month lame-duck period for the city administration and City Council.

The need to change the date of the primary election was prompted by a referendum approved by city voters four years ago to shift Baltimore's general election to the same years as presidential races. But only the Assembly has the authority to set the date of primary elections.

O'Malley wants the legislature to pass a measure that focuses solely on changing the next city primary in accordance with what voters decided. The administration proposes holding it on Super Tuesday in March of next year, the date of Maryland's presidential primary.

"We're just trying to do what the voters called for," O'Malley said. "The referendum said 2004 and every four years after that. President Miller might not agree with it, but that's what the voters voted to do."

Miller is pushing a package that fixes what he sees as a systemic problem in the timing of the city's elections. Yesterday, he issued an ultimatum to Baltimore lawmakers urging them to back his plan or prepare for the city primary to go forward in September.

Baltimore is the only major jurisdiction that holds its elections at a separate time from statewide races. Miller said he believes that timing negatively affects voter turnout, costs more money and gives city officials a chance at state offices without risking their local seats.

Miller argues that O'Malley's proposal has more to do with O'Malley than what is right for the city -- permitting him to possibly run for governor in 2006 without risking his position as mayor if he were re-elected next year.

"It's all wrapped up in the political aspirations of the mayor," Miller told city senators.

Although city officials say the issue is a matter of home rule settled by voters in 1999, Miller has said he thinks there is a better resolution.

Miller wants the city's local races aligned with the gubernatorial elections beginning in 2006, which the O'Malley administration is resisting. The gubernatorial races are held in the even, nonpresidential election years.

If the city election coincides with the next gubernatorial election, it would force O'Malley to choose between seeking another term as mayor or challenging Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Miller's ultimatum to city senators includes holding the next mayoral primary in September next year and then moving the municipal races to coincide with the state in 2006. He also proposes moving the state's presidential primary next year from March to February, which he says would give Maryland more national attention.

Otherwise, the Senate president will kill Baltimore's election bill this year, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city Senate delegation, told the city senators. He said Miller is "willing to leave it as it is and have a primary in September 2003."

The discussion raised the ire of other lawmakers and members of O'Malley's administration. "Then leave it alone," said a visibly frustrated Sen. George W. Della Jr. "If we can't agree, then leave it alone."

Deputy Mayor Jeanne Hitchcock said lawmakers have an obligation to support the referendum. "I don't think you can get around the fact that the citizens of Baltimore voted for a presidential cycle," she said.

The city election bill has been the source of heated debate throughout the legislative session. Del. Jill P. Carter, backed by community leaders, waged an unsuccessful campaign in the House of Delegates to have the next mayoral primary in September next year -- a date closer to the November 2004 election.

But the House passed a bill to move the primary to March next year because supporters of the legislation said that was what voters requested. State election officials also have said a September 2004 primary could be difficult for them. "I am supporting the voters," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of the city House delegation.

Miller told city senators yesterday that he would meet with them individually to discuss the matter. "We have time," he said.

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