Few obstacles seen in bid by O'Malley

Early primary, $1 million are advantages, some say

`His fantasy come true'

Likely challengers, others emerging with criticism

April 14, 2003|By Doug Donovan and Tom Pelton | Doug Donovan and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

If the prevailing political wisdom in Baltimore holds true for the next five months, Mayor Martin O'Malley should have no problem winning the September Democratic primary.

After 3 1/2 years in office, O'Malley looms as a formidable politician with more than $1 million in campaign cash and popularity far beyond Baltimore's borders.

"He's been a great mayor, and I don't see anyone else on the horizon," said Howard P. Rawlings, an influential African-American state delegate whose backing in 1999 helped O'Malley win the critical support of African-Americans. "I don't think there is any candidate who can muster a successful campaign against O'Malley."

But -- as O'Malley's out-of-nowhere mayoral bid proved in 1999 -- there is no telling what pitfalls the next five months may hold. Critics have emerged to attack him on such issues as crime, public schools and economic development, among others.

Only Andrey Bundley, principal of Walbrook High School, has said he will definitely file to run against O'Malley in the primary. Still, political observers say several other candidates are bound to file, perhaps as many as the 17 who ran in the 1999 primary.

"This is going to be a cast-of-thousands election," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor who follows Baltimore politics. "It's not going to be political theater, it's going to be political burlesque."

The political season began abruptly last week when the state legislature -- to the surprise of many local officials -- failed to move September's primary closer to the November 2004 general election.

O'Malley has publicly complained about the September primary, but those close to him say no one benefits more. A short campaign season favors incumbents by giving challengers less time to raise the nearly $1 million needed for a serious mayoral bid.

A new four-year term would give the Democratic mayor the opportunity to challenge Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2006 without losing his job.

"This is his fantasy come true," said Mitchell Klein, an organizer with Community and Labor United for Baltimore, a politically active organization critical of the mayor. "O'Malley has a million-dollar war chest. Who can compete with that?"

There are few who believe they might be able to compete. Carl Stokes, a former council member and failed 1999 mayoral candidate, is considering a run. So are three prominent African-American elected officials: City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and state Sen. Joan Carter Conway.

Pratt said she believes voters are upset with O'Malley because of the latest increase in water and sewer rates. Jessamy has repeatedly criticized the mayor for not increasing city funding of her office.

Conway, an early supporter of O'Malley in 1999, said she wants the mayor to answer for the loss of city jobs because of the privatization of city services. She said she also believes O'Malley's support is beginning to falter.

"His popularity has waned in the African-American community," Conway said Thursday after her appearance with O'Malley at a ceremony for Belvedere Square marketplace's opening.

No Republican has stepped forward as a possible challenger of O'Malley in the general election -- typically a formality in the heavily Democratic city.

One of the most recent polls regarding O'Malley was conducted in August by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc. It showed that 66 percent of voters polled approve of the job O'Malley was doing, 17 percent disapproved. The rest gave no answer.

Popularity based on race is not as easy to gauge. Many say that O'Malley's harsh criticism of Jessamy early in his administration damaged his standing in the black community but that his support remains strong.

"There is a tremendous amount of support for O'Malley" in the white and black communities, said Arthur Murphy, a political consultant hired by several City Council members. But, Murphy added, race is an issue that can change quickly depending on who runs.

O'Malley said he believes he is doing the best job for all of Baltimore.

"Race is always an issue in American politics but I think every family has to decide for themselves where that falls in the list of issues that are confronting all of us," O'Malley said Thursday. "Four years ago, we won every single district in the city, and among African-American voters some of our highest levels of support came from the poorest and hardest-hit neighborhoods in the city."

O'Malley said his administration has made tremendous strides on the critical issues of reducing crime and creating jobs.

Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway, who is collecting signatures to put his name on the ballot as an independent candidate in the November 2004 general election, said O'Malley might be vulnerable on crime issues.

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