Duncan aims at one-up strategy

County executive says O'Malley is a follower on stands

December 21, 2005|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley leads Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan in early polls in their race to be the Democratic nominee for Maryland governor.

But, Duncan campaign officials say, O'Malley has been trailing the Montgomery executive in one regard: ideas.

In the past year, they assert, O'Malley has proposed city initiatives and campaign positions - on property taxes, prescription drugs, affordable housing, stem cell research and clean air - that mirror policies first launched by Duncan.

It is no secret that government officials from the same party frequently borrow ideas from each other, especially on important issues. But as Duncan and O'Malley vie to win the Democratic nomination next year, they will be increasingly forced to demonstrate differences.

Many political observers said that O'Malley's early momentum nearly nine months before the Sept. 12 primary has provoked Duncan to try to distinguish himself sooner.

Duncan's strategy has focused on highlighting inconsistencies between O'Malley's rhetoric and Baltimore's reality. More recently, Duncan campaign officials have begun pointing out that O'Malley embraces positions on critical issues only after the county executive has staked out nearly identical stances.

"There are leaders, and then there are followers," Duncan spokeswoman Jody Couser said. "Throughout his career, Doug Duncan has shown the courage to lead, whether it's on Silver Spring revitalization, stem cell research, education or the environment."

O'Malley dismissed the assertion that any of his initiatives were spurred by Duncan. O'Malley campaign officials also said that Duncan has more frequently followed the mayor in the early days of the race - with campaign launches, endorsements and running mate picks.

"I think he's frustrated and desperate to find differences between the two of us," O'Malley said in an interview. "We steal good ideas from anywhere we find them. We've borrowed great ideas from New York, from Chicago. ... If there are some things that Montgomery County has done before we have, and they're good ideas, ... we'll gladly borrow those, assuming Doug hasn't copyrighted or patented any of those."

Political observers said it is common for party primaries to feature candidates with similar records and, in some instances, for candidates to compile matching policies to offset any advantage that the opposition may claim on issues.

"O'Malley's counting on that Duncan will not be able to get out a message of contrast in their records," said James G. Gimpel, a University of Maryland, College Park political science professor. "You're trying to neutralize the competition's advantages by doing the same things they have done."

Consider:

In March, Duncan proposed a property tax reduction for Montgomery County residents. Less than a week later, O'Malley did the same in Baltimore.

In September 2004, Duncan unveiled a discount prescription drug card - featuring his name - for all Montgomery residents. In April 2005, O'Malley introduced the card in Baltimore, branded with the mayor's name.

In March 2003, Duncan persuaded Montgomery's elected council to support a $16 million affordable-housing fund, tying it to a percentage of the property tax to guarantee future funding. This past June, O'Malley persuaded the City Council to back a $59 million affordable-housing fund over five years as part of a compromise to pass the mayor's plan for the city to build and own a downtown hotel. The fund is being financed in its first year with $10 million from a city surplus.

Duncan demonstrated public support for two General Assembly measures this year - the Healthy Air Act and the Stem Cell Research Act - before O'Malley stated similar stances on the bills. In statement last month, Couser "welcomed" O'Malley's support for the clean air legislation, and said Duncan fought for the initiative because it was the right thing to do, "not because of political expediency."

Political observers said Duncan might be able to gain traction with primary voters by highlighting such a pattern.

"The primary voter, especially in Maryland, is more highly attentive, knows more about politics," Gimpel said. "That makes issues and policies more relevant."

He said Democratic voters might begin asking of O'Malley: "What in the world has taken him so long?"

"Is O'Malley only going to come by the instinct to make creative public policy when he has a serious challenge?" Gimpel said.

O'Malley critics made a similar accusation during his 2003 primary campaign in Baltimore. They said the mayor made city public schools a top priority only when he was challenged by Andrey Bundley, a high school principal.

Other political experts say voters could not care less when candidates publicly announce their support for issues if their positions are identical.

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