O'Malley's bid shows signs of '06

Future: With the mayor's re-election virtually assured, experts say his political activities and margin of victory could shape the next race for governor.

Election 2004 : Implications Beyond The City

October 31, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley's public face may be focused on this week's bid for re-election, but his political ambition is already looking ahead to 2006.

So the question for O'Malley isn't whether he wins Tuesday, but by how much - and what the margin says about his prospects of becoming Maryland's next governor.

Planning for his political future also explains why the mayor seems to have spent more time and money on helping Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry than on his own re-election, an effort party officials say is meant to impress key state and national decision-makers, and wealthy donors.

"I think it's almost preseason [for the governor's race], to see who can raise more money, who's able to do what, who's able to deliver for the Democrats on the national level ... and who can be established to have a better organization on the statewide level," said Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Maryland's political director for the Kerry campaign and a Baltimore city councilman.

O'Malley's chief Democratic rival, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, is also working hard on Kerry's behalf and trying to make inroads on the mayor's turf, courting current and former city politicians and such influential figures as Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.

"They're testing each other's machines," Mitchell said. "The 2006 campaign [for governor] starts Nov. 3."

When elected in 1999, O'Malley scored a stunning 90 percent of the general election vote as a fresh face making big promises to fix Baltimore's problems. He acknowledges that he doesn't expect the same landslide victory this year.

"There's no way you can do this job for more than a week without disappointing half of the public," O'Malley said recently. "We've had to do a lot of tough things."

The mayor and his campaign staff are not talking specifics, but many political observers said O'Malley probably hopes for a large margin of victory - at least above 60 percent of the vote - to demonstrate a solid command of city voters.

"O'Malley must be concerned about the number because ... his victory margin will show just how well he has held onto his base," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "It sends a message to Duncan that `you can't come in here to take away my support.' It's also a message to [Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.] as well."

The remote possibility of little-known Republican challenger Elbert "Ray" Henderson taking a high percentage of votes from O'Malley harks back to the weakness exposed in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign of former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Townsend lost 20 percent of the Democratic primary vote to an unknown retired grocery store clerk who spent only $1,500 - a precursor to her loss two months later in the general election to Ehrlich.

In last year's Baltimore Democratic primary, principal-turned-politician Andrey Bundley took 32 percent of the vote. O'Malley still won with the largest margin - 66 percent - in a city mayoral primary, and he won in a majority of African-American districts. But he had to spend more than $1 million, compared with Bundley's $130,000.

If O'Malley has a weak performance Tuesday - which experts say is unlikely - Duncan could couple those results with Bundley's decent performance last year to pinpoint where to plant seeds of support in O'Malley's back yard.

Duncan has been trying to tap into Baltimore by lobbying for early support from Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Baltimore's Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. William Donald Schaefer, the state comptroller and former Baltimore mayor, has endorsed Duncan and co-hosted a city fund-raiser for him with Angelos.

"Duncan is nurturing relationships," said City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., whom Duncan has called for a meeting. "If he can tap into O'Malley's base, it will help him challenge Martin. The mayor's in Montgomery County doing the same thing."

O'Malley, who grew up in Montgomery, has met with the county's Civic Federation and attended a Kerry fund-raiser that Duncan co-hosted with two other Democrats. He also met with Montgomery Democrats at a home in Cabin John.

While O'Malley and Duncan are obviously interested in the outcome of the mayoral race, they have been far more concerned with helping to deliver a decisive Maryland victory for Kerry - and with demonstrating their influence to national party leaders.

O'Malley and Duncan have been steering substantial support to Kerry from their campaign organizations: lending volunteers to make telephone calls, deliver campaign literature and travel to swing states.

O'Malley has also raised as much for Kerry as he has for himself. At an event at M&T Bank Stadium on June 28, O'Malley raised $1.3 million for the Massachusetts senator, who toured Baltimore that day. His campaign has paid for all of the Kerry-Edwards yard signs in the Baltimore area.

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