With the city's primary less than four months away, an organized effort to find the best African-American candidate to challenge Mayor Martin O'Malley is quietly under way.
Raymond V. Haysbert, chairman of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, had O'Malley's six leading rivals to a private dinner convened Wednesday to develop strategies to defeat the popular incumbent.
"It wasn't about who was going to be the best mayor or that we didn't already have the best mayor," said Haysbert, campaign treasurer for state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who is considering challenging O'Malley. "It was more of a meeting on `What does a person need to win?' Name recognition, raising money, positive reputation."
Others in attendance, however, said the purpose was obvious. In the Democratic primary in 1999, O'Malley split the black vote with two African-American candidates, a situation many at the meeting are hoping to avoid this year.
"The discussion focused on a candidate for mayor," said John A. Pica Jr., a former state senator who is a lawyer and lobbyist for Peter Angelos, who was invited by Conway. "The individuals there were looking for the most formidable candidate. All the names discussed were African-American."
A spokesman for O'Malley said he had not heard of the meeting and did not want to comment until he got more information. Coincidentally, last night O'Malley was scheduled to attend the Urban League's annual black-tie dinner.
Haysbert held the meeting at The Forum, his catering hall on Primrose Avenue that is well known for its high-powered meetings. The guest list included nearly all of the people who have expressed varying degrees of interest in running against O'Malley.
Many people who attended the meeting said it was clearly held to garner support for Conway. But the state senator said she had nothing to do with its organization, even though Haysbert played host.
Several political insiders have been predicting that Conway, who supported O'Malley in 1999, might announce whether she will run next week, perhaps Wednesday - the same day as O'Malley's fund-raiser at Ravens Stadium. Sources said another meeting is scheduled at The Forum that night.
Haysbert said rumors that Conway may announce her candidacy next week are false. "She has not been raising the money needed to run for mayor," Haysbert said. "That's some kind of indication." Conway said that she is still "considering" challenging O'Malley.
Last Wednesday's meeting included Walbrook High School Principal Andrey Bundley, the only person so far to file to run for mayor; Circuit Court Clerk Frank Conaway; and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. Carl Stokes, who has said he plans to run and who was one of the two African-American candidates to lose to O'Malley in 1999, sent a representative to the meeting.
Comptroller Joan Pratt, who still has not decided whether she'll run, said she received an invitation from Conway but could not attend.
Also in attendance was Scott Donahoo, the president and chief executive officer of Foreign Motors, who has said he will challenge O'Malley only if Conway does not run.
Nearly all in attendance contacted by The Sun said they were urged to keep the meeting secret. Many were loath to reveal the identities of the 40 to 50 people present for fear of reprisals by O'Malley's administration. But sources at the meeting said city union representatives, high-powered attorneys, developers and community activists attended.
Those included William H. Murphy Jr., a prominent attorney and former mayoral candidate; Wayne R. Frazier Sr., developer and chairman of Democrats for Ehrlich; Julius Henson, the longtime political strategist who works for Bundley; Anne O. Emery, founder of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women; and Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of the city's largest union and a harsh critic of O'Malley.
The meeting, chaired by Emery, was conducted fairly informally, allowing open dialogue on ideas on how to beat O'Malley. Other citywide races were also discussed, but the mayor's race held center stage. By all accounts, each of the potential candidates, except for Donahoo, formally spoke.
According to sources at the meeting, Jessamy reportedly said that she would not challenge O'Malley but that she was there to find a candidate to support. Officially, Jessamy's spokeswoman said the state's attorney had not made a decision.
A gathering similar to Wednesday's, which participants called a "consensus" meeting, was conducted by city ministers in 1999 to determine the black candidate who could garner the most support. Political strategist Arthur Murphy said such meetings among city African-American leaders date back to a 1958 meeting to form an all-black House of Delegates ticket. That first meeting was also attended by Haysbert.