Md. Dems seek homeland (political) security

July 25, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

U.S. SEN. Paul S. Sarbanes will be Mr. Maryland Democrat at his party's national convention this week in Boston. It's an honor for Mr. Sarbanes - and an indirect statement of his party's underlying challenge this week.

It's a tedious necessity to recall that the party has no really exciting, unfinished business to accomplish in Massachusetts. Its national ticket - Sen. John Kerry for president, Sen. John Edwards for vice president - has been in place, it seems, forever.

Maryland Democrats, though, have plenty of unfinished business.

Mr. Sarbanes makes the point. As the state's highest-ranking elected official - and the longest-serving Maryland senator - he serves as head of the party, on hand to announce the state's nominating votes for the Kerry-Edwards team.

But his position illustrates a lamentable fact: For the first time since the 1960s, Maryland's Democratic Party is not headed by a governor. The incumbent is a Republican, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a man of considerable skills in the political arena. Incumbents, as the five-term incumbent Mr. Sarbanes knows, are difficult to dislodge.

So Maryland Dems come to the convention with a split - or at least a dual - focus. They want to take their state for Kerry-Edwards and they want to take it big. They want to begin proving that Mr. Ehrlich's election in 2002 was a fluke made possible only by a weak Democratic candidate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. They know they were out-thought and out-campaigned by an opponent who has continued to show political wiles and resources.

It's an embarrassment they can't hide. "We do not have a Democratic governor," says Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. "We expect this will be the last time for a long time that we'll have this problem. We expect to correct it in a couple years."

So for them, the convention becomes a five-day exercise in organizational bonding. There will be various workshops and forums and opportunities for constructive schmoozing that could be useful for building a strong organization for 2006.

The effort for Kerry-Edwards will be part of that rebuilding process.

Rebuilding may not be a term the party insiders will want to accept. They may think their party remains intact. But they know they have to prove it. Mr. Ehrlich has been running Maryland as if it has shifted decidedly to the no-new-taxes, conservative side of the scale - and away from the programs that Democrats love to field for the needy. Is he right? This year's campaign for Kerry-Edwards - and for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who is seeking a fourth six-year term - will begin to tell the tale.

In that regard, the Maryland contingent will be proud to see one of its young stars in a highly visible role. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley will be a major prime-time speaker, appearing on Wednesday night. He will be expected to carry some of the fight to President Bush, making the point that the nation's cities have had too little help from Washington in the struggle to build defenses against terrorists.

Mr. O'Malley's administration will get a major award next week for innovations in city government. He'll be flying to Washington to accept it - and then rushing back to make his prime-time speech. Later, he'll be performing with an Irish band, and his aura is likely to widen with a national TV audience getting its first extended look at a man who might be a contender on the national stage someday.

Marylanders will be proud of the young mayor, but members of the Democratic delegation will know - as Mr. O'Malley himself surely knows - that a test of their ancient dominance in this state is already at hand. This presidential nominating convention and this November's elections are but a prelude to November 2006.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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