State bickering digs city's trap

Vote: Officials across the state deny blame for Baltimore's 14-month chasm between nominating and electing its next mayor.

April 13, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Every political quarter claimed its position was just and on the side of the people - from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to city lawmakers and such community groups as ACORN and CLUB.

They were supposed to reach an agreement on the timing of the city's next primary election before the confetti and balloons hit the floor of the General Assembly chambers at the close of the 90-day session late Monday.

But in the end, a lot of political wrangling left city voters stuck with an embarrassing gap between the next mayoral primary and general election that will create a 14-month lame-duck city government come September.

And from Annapolis to Baltimore people were shaking their heads in disbelief, wondering how it could have happened.

"I think the city looks ridiculous with this," said former Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who was the most powerful female legislator in the state until defeated in November. "It's always the public that loses out."

Throughout the past century, Baltimore held its elections every four years on a cycle that kept them separate from state or national elections. This gave its politicians the opportunity to run for national or state offices without having to give up their city posts. But it also cost a lot to run an election for just the city. So, in 1999, the city's voters approved by referendum the moving of their elections to a presidential year - 2004, which gave the mayor and other city elected officials five years instead of the usual four in office.

So far, so good.

But because of a little-noticed change made in state law the year before, the city had to turn to the legislature, which controls the dates of all primary elections in Maryland, to fulfill completely the will of the voters.

O'Malley wanted the primary on Super Tuesday in March next year, when Maryland joins several other states in holding presidential primaries. That's what he thought the voters asked for in the 1999 referendum.

Del. Jill P. Carter, a Northwest Baltimore Democrat, the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Community and Labor United for Baltimore (CLUB) wanted the primary in September next year because a March primary would force candidates to campaign in the cold and snow. They also wanted to keep the lame-duck period as short as possible to prevent departing officials from getting up to the shenanigans that lame ducks tend to engage in.

Miller agreed with the community groups. But he added another twist: After the 2004 election, he would align the mayoral races with the statewide races, beginning in 2006, giving city officials a two-year term instead of the usual four years and taking away the possibility of running for a state office while keeping a city post.

Senators and delegates were pulled in every direction and broke off talks with just a few hours left in the Assembly session. That left the primary to be conducted this September, with a general election in November next year.

Then the finger-pointing began.

"We didn't mess this up," Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat, said in a heated argument with members of the House of Delegates. "Everyone is looking to us to fix it. Ultimately, the city messed it up."

City Councilman Robert W. Curran, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill that created the 1999 referendum to move the mayoral election, blames the legislature for altering language in the state code without informing city officials. Curran had been working since 1997 to change the date of the municipal elections.

The state's Commission to Revise the Election Code recommended changes to the election laws that were later approved during the 1998 Assembly session. Those changes included rewriting a section of state law about Baltimore's primary election date.

Before 1998, the Maryland code stated that the city's primary election would be held "in September of the year in which the municipal elections in the City of Baltimore are held."

After the change in the law, the code stated that the city primary will be held "in September in the year following the election of the governor."

If the legislature had not changed the law, there would have been no problems with the referendum passed by city voters in 1999 because the primary would automatically have been moved to September of whatever year the general election was scheduled. And the city would never have had to look to the legislature to help fix the gap that exists between the primary and general elections.

Curran said he believes someone in the legislature deliberately changed the law to undermine any proposals by the city.

"The language in the annotated code was surreptitiously changed," Curran said. "I firmly believe in my heart that that change was done by someone who was dastardly cunning."

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