When Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan launched his gubernatorial campaign last week, one of his stops was an African-American church in Baltimore where he was cheered by Mayor Martin O'Malley's oldest and harshest critics.
For Duncan, who is relatively unknown in the city, winning over black voters on O'Malley's home turf is crucial if the three-term executive is to prevail in their battle for the 2006 Democratic nomination for governor. His visit to Union Baptist Church reveals his main strategy of aligning with O'Malley's political nemesis: the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.
While about 29 percent of Maryland's population is African-American, the impact of black voters is likely to be magnified in the primary because they are overwhelmingly registered Democrat. Most of the state's registered black voters live in Prince George's County and Baltimore, and Duncan and O'Malley are pursuing strategies to build support in those jurisdictions, including contemplating the choice of African-American running mates.
Today, Duncan's strategy of building a base among Baltimore's black majority is set to enlist the assistance of Kurt L. Schmoke, the city's first black elected mayor, who served from 1987 to 1999. Schmoke is scheduled to accompany Duncan on a citywide tour, including a stop at an Associated Black Charities meeting and visits to a Park Heights barbershop, a Charles Street beauty salon and an East Baltimore market.
Some political experts say that Schmoke's endorsement coupled with backing from ministers could help Duncan garner greater black support. Others say black voters are knowledgeable enough to see that the support of Schmoke and some pastors has more to do with their rocky history with O'Malley.
The Baltimore ministerial group has never thrown the support of its approximately 200 city churches to O'Malley. Duncan officials say they believe the discontent expressed by many of its ministers provides an opening with congregations that straddle the Baltimore city-county line.
"We believe that in the African-American community there are a lot of people looking for an alternative" to O'Malley, said Duncan campaign manager Scott Archineaux. For example, on Sunday, three days after his Union Baptist announcement, Duncan appeared at services at Lochearn Presbyterian Church with two African-American Baltimore County Democrats - state Sen. Delores G. Kelley and Del. Adrienne A. Jones, speaker pro tem of the House of Delegates.
But O'Malley supporters say the ministerial alliance speaks for a small segment and that the mayor's record on reducing crime and supporting minority businesses has buttressed his support among blacks - most notably with the City Council, which has a black majority.
They also point to his support from other ministers with large congregations such as the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple.
"I'm living in the middle of Mayor O'Malley's productivity," said Bryant, who has a congregation of about 10,000. His support for O'Malley marks a reversal after opposing the mayor in 1999 and 2003. His past opposition was based on close relationships with other candidates. "I don't have anything against Mr. Duncan, but I know Mr. O'Malley," he said.
Some O'Malley supporters say ministers and other blacks backing Duncan did not like O'Malley in 1999 mostly because of race and have opposed him ever since because of lack of access. Supporters say O'Malley's 1999 victory and his decisive re-election - with broad black support - prove black voters do not like racial appeals.
"My election was a resounding rebuke to those who would engage in the politics of division and fear," O'Malley said last week.
Nevertheless, Duncan has been working on getting the support of black ministers in the city for months. In July, he spoke at Trinity Baptist Church to support the ministerial alliance and its offshoot, Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, in their fight against O'Malley's $305 million bid to build a city-owned hotel.
The council approved the hotel, but only after O'Malley reached a deal with BUILD to create an affordable-housing fund. Wounds from the fight linger with some ministers, who say O'Malley sides with downtown development over neighborhoods.
"The only kind of jobs we're going to have in this city are at hotels and hospitals," said the Rev. P.M. Smith, pastor of Huber Memorial Church and a ministerial alliance member.
Unlike Bryant, who commented about progress in his tony Canton neighborhood, Smith says he sees too much crime and drugs outside his Luzerne Avenue home in a blighted section of East Baltimore.
The Rev. Gregory Perkins, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church, also in East Baltimore, said he also sees little progress and believes that Duncan's strategy will work.