Sorting through the sizzle in search of steak

October 23, 2005|By C. FRASER SMITH

The political world of Maryland may still be buzzing about the appearance of two former Baltimore mayors in a black inner-city church endorsing some guy from Montgomery County for governor.

Kurt L. Schmoke and William Donald Schaefer signed on last week with Douglas M. Duncan, Montgomery county executive. Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Schmoke, who might never have agreed on anything until then, stood by amid the usual hoopla.

For someone with an alleged sizzle deficit, it was impressive hoopla.

"Think Bigger," urged the yellow and black campaign signs. Mr. Duncan is a hefty and tall man whose campaign themes will include challenges to the slots-dominated governorship of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The two former mayors of Baltimore were the centerpiece of a primary campaign that needs to win over those Democratic Party faithful who desperately want to oust the Republican Mr. Ehrlich - and who see the current mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, as the best hope to unseat Mr. Ehrlich.

The party's leaders might still agree with that assessment, but they are increasingly convinced that they have a race on their hands. "It's a jump ball," one of them said last week. Game on, in other words.

That conclusion is a plus for Mr. Duncan, who had seemed a candidate with more admiration than support.

City Hall's current occupant might have been tempted to rest on his poll numbers. By most of these early calculations, he's comfortably ahead of Mr. Duncan.

But the support of Mr. Schaefer - and particularly that of Mr. Schmoke - means a lot more than endorsements usually do in the TV age, in which appeals for support tend to go beyond any leader or former leader's recommendation. Mr. Schaefer might have lost some luster with Democrats because he's been an outspoken fan of the Republican governor. Mr. Schmoke, who might still have a useful organization in Baltimore, means more to Mr. Duncan in Baltimore.

But here's a kicker: As important as they are, these two men aren't the really dramatic endorser.

That person is Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. She is expected to join the Duncan team soon. And her nod will be very important among one of Baltimore's most important constituents: black women. There are students of Baltimore politics who will tell you that the profile of a voter in Baltimore is a black woman over 40 who goes to church, casts a wary and sophisticated eye on political leaders and votes with regularity.

This group will be a hard sell for Mr. O'Malley, who tangled with Ms. Jessamy over her decision not to prosecute a city police officer charged with planting drugs. The mayor responded with a profanity. Ms. Jessamy's sisterhood of supporters have not forgotten.

"It was disrespectful," says Barbara Green, a volunteer in the Schmoke campaigns and a delegate to the 1986 National Democratic Convention who has worked for Mr. Schmoke and other candidates for many years. She says Ms. Jessamy's supporters could end up backing Mr. Duncan.

In Baltimore, at least, the mayor might have even more fence-mending to do. Several months ago, national black radio personality Tom Joyner introduced Mr. O'Malley at a Baltimore event - to a chorus of boos from the largely black audience. Others thought the support drawn by Andrey Bundley in the last mayoral primary also reflected unhappiness with Mr. O'Malley.

Still, there are those poll numbers, which reportedly have held steady for Mr. O'Malley for several years. These polls have represented thinking across the breadth of Maryland's electorate, not the Democratic primary voter alone.

With that group of voters, Mr. Duncan and Mr. O'Malley face opposite perceptions. The mayor might look like sizzle to people who yearn for substance and find his glamour unsettling. Mr. Duncan said last week that he doesn't want to be on stage - a reference to O'Malley's March, the mayor's Irish band.

Mr. Duncan arrives with steak but no pizazz.

Both assessments are distortions. Mr. O'Malley has impressed party people in and out of Baltimore with his grasp of city and state issues. And the big guy from Montgomery will do plenty well on the stump.

Endorsements are fine. But in a campaign, sizzle is substance.

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

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