No agreement on city elections

Senate plan to change primary date sparked opposition in House

2003 Legislative Session Closes

April 08, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

After weeks of political wrangling, state lawmakers failed to reach an agreement last night on a date for Baltimore's next mayoral election, setting the stage for a primary this September - 14 months before the general election.

The city needed the General Assembly to correct the gap in the election schedule by yesterday's midnight adjournment. But the Senate and House of Delegates were unable to agree on an election schedule suitable to voters, city officials and the legislature.

"It's going to be a train wreck for certain," said Del. Clarence Davis of East Baltimore.

Baltimore voters passed a referendum in 1999 to move the mayoral and City Council general elections to coincide with presidential races beginning in 2004. But only the Assembly can set primary election dates.

Because the Assembly did not act, the primary is set for this September, leaving the possibility of a lame-duck administration until the November 2004 general election - and that 14-month gap would continue for city elections.

The Senate proposed holding the city's next primary in September 2004, two months before the general election. At the insistence of President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the Senate plan also included a provision to override the voter referendum and permanently shift the city's primary and general elections to be held with statewide races starting in 2006, giving the next mayor and City Council a one-time, two-year term.

Angered by the Senate plan, the House refused to agree. They said two years was not enough time for officials to run government. Moreover, delegates said the voter referendum called for a primary to be held with the Maryland presidential primary on Super Tuesday in March, not in September 2004.

"We cannot allow one house to impose those kinds of drastic decisions on the city," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of the city House delegation. "It's unacceptable."

Lawmakers worked through the afternoon and evening, trying to resolve their differences - but to no avail.

"Everyone is looking to us to fix it," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway. "Ultimately the city messed it up. It's time to move on."

Marriott responded that the solution was simple: Move the city primary to March 2004, as was passed by the House. "Give us the bill we sent over" to the Senate, Marriott said.

"You'll never get that one," Conway said.

Prior to the 1999 referendum, Baltimore held its elections in the years after state races and before presidential races.

The Senate president says aligning city elections with statewide races would increase voter turnout and save money.

But the timing of the change upset Mayor Martin O'Malley. He asked the legislature to support the March 2004 primary election because that's what voters picked. The Senate plan also had personal implications for O'Malley, because moving the city elections to the same year as state races in 2006 would have forced him to choose between running for mayor or governor.

Miller said he has nothing against O'Malley, but the Senate president said politicians should not get the kind of free ride city officials have had to run for statewide office.

For decades, Baltimore has been the only major Maryland jurisdiction that holds local elections separate from statewide races. That has allowed city officials to run for state offices without having to surrender their local seats.

"He's a good mayor. I think he would make a great governor," Miller said. But "you can't have your cake and eat it, too."

City Councilman Robert Curran, who sponsored the original legislation to put the question of changing Baltimore's election dates to voters, professed surprise yesterday that the legislature held the issue hostage and failed to fix the problem. "It should not have come to this," he said. "It should have been a non-issue."

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