Veteran Democrats value tough primary campaign

September 30, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The two of them, Tommy D'Alesandro III and Ted Venetoulis, only have about a thousand years of political experience between them, so what do I know?

I say the biggest problem the Democratic Party has is keeping Martin O'Malley and Doug Duncan from kneecapping each other before one of them faces Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for governor. D'Alesandro and Venetoulis say: Beautiful. Let the fight among Democrats begin.

They were out there Wednesday in the big throng at Patterson Park as O'Malley officially announced he's running for governor while Duncan, from a bunker somewhere in Montgomery County, lobbed another grenade at O'Malley and the city of Baltimore.

Beautiful, said D'Alesandro, the former mayor whose bloodline includes his father, Tommy Jr., who was mayor for three terms. Beautiful, said Venetoulis, the former Baltimore County executive whose initial gift to Maryland was guiding a fellow named Schaefer to his first win as mayor of Baltimore.

Beautiful?

The traditional political concern is simple: All intra-party attacks automatically become weapons for the other side. Duncan slashes O'Malley, or O'Malley burns Duncan, and Ehrlich's people store up the slashing-and-burning remarks for use in the general election. (What's more, the primary winner spends so much money, there's nothing left for the general election.)

So, go figure. Here were D'Alesandro and Venetoulis, the two old Democratic warhorses, with their faces absolutely beaming as they contemplated the O'Malley-Duncan fight. And the first reason was a cautionary three words: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Three years ago, her financial war chest scared off all prospective Democratic primary opponents. When she faced Ehrlich, Townsend's top staffers sometimes seemed oblivious to reality. Ehrlich then became the first Republican governor of Maryland since Spiro Agnew.

"She should have had a primary," Venetoulis said. "She would have been helped by it. Her people were never tested before the general election. They didn't have a chance to figure out what worked and what didn't. This guy" - he pointed to O'Malley, moving through the large, cheering crowd at Patterson Park - "he's gonna get tested. That's important. The experience is precious. And it energizes everybody."

"It's exposure," D'Alesandro said. "Everybody knows Ehrlich's laying in wait. So what? Every election's a steeplechase. This is healthy."

On the day D'Alesandro was elected mayor of Baltimore in 1967, he won 555 of the city's polling places. This was considered pretty good, since the city only had 555. So what does he know about tough primary races?

D'Alesandro beamed at the question. Everybody forgets. In the Democratic primary that year, his opponents were Solomon Liss, the brilliant judge, and a pretty tough brawler named Peter G. Angelos, who now tosses bouquets at Ehrlich.

But Democrats clearly have concerns about the tone of attacks in this primary. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller says he's had heart-to-heart talks with both candidates. Miller was there Wednesday at Patterson Park.

"We've told them," he said, "that it doesn't do either of them any good to bash each other's jurisdictions. Duncan's got this kinder, gentler personality. O'Malley's a rock star. They're both good, qualified candidates."

Before they do irreparable damage, Miller said, "if the early polls show one of them trailing big, and not making up any ground, we've talked about one of them dropping out."

The real problem there? William Donald Schaefer, who crosses all modern political generations and, when the mood strikes him, all available political parties. Schaefer wishes to remain state comptroller.

He has told friends he backs Duncan for governor, despite a personal friendship with Ehrlich. Duncan currently trails O'Malley in the polls.

Among the scenarios being discussed: If Duncan continues to trail, he would be urged to quit his gubernatorial campaign and run for comptroller.

Thus, the primary debate sharpens. Duncan lobs a few grenades O'Malley's way - the continuing Baltimore homicide rate, the drug traffic, the public school woes - while O'Malley stands there in Patterson Park, surrounded by the adoring.

Duncan's right, of course. The city does have its enduring problems. But here was Javier Bustamante, from the city planning commission, who's also editor and publisher of the Hispanic Web site, Coloquio.

"Look at this park," he said. "A few years ago, people were afraid to come here. Now you see young women running through the park in the morning. You see children on bicycles. The park is alive again, and the neighborhoods around it are thriving."

Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano, standing next to Bustamante, pointed off in the distance. There, under construction at Boston and Clinton streets, was Canton Crossing.

"And that's just part of it," Graziano said. "The last three or four years, all this movement up from the waterfront. You see people investing, you see them settling in."

That's O'Malley's pitch, too. But Duncan will offer his own perspective, while Democrats hold their breath and hope the primary battle is energizing and not self-destructing.

michael.olesker@baltsun.com

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