Party meets in W. Md. summit

Cardin, O'Malley get nods in informal Democratic polls

April 09, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

FLINTSTONE -- Though conservative-leaning Western Maryland is not a traditional battleground for state Democrats, the party's candidates in several competitive statewide races turned out to flex their campaign muscles yesterday during a regional caucus and first-of-its-kind straw poll.

"The O'Malley/Brown campaign is not going to be a campaign that hunkers down in two jurisdictions," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley during a lunchtime speech at the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort here. "We're going to campaign in every jurisdiction in Maryland." O'Malley is running for governor on a ticket with state Del. Anthony G. Brown of Prince George's County.

The first straw poll of the 2006 election season, administered by the Western Maryland Democratic Caucus, produced a victory for O'Malley in the governor's race by a 108-52 margin over rival Douglas M. Duncan, the Montgomery County executive.

The unscientific and nonbinding survey was conducted at the end of a daylong summit that was well-attended by the staffs of candidates - who were allowed to vote. Volunteers, staffers and supporters passed out campaign literature and stickers to the crowd. Signs papered the hallways, doors and ballroom walls of the resort hotel, among them: "Lichtman! U.S. Senate 2006" and "Peter Franchot, the only Democrat for Comptroller."

Even Josie, a "Jack Roodle" - half Jack Russell terrier, half poodle - got into the act when her owner put a green O'Malley campaign sign on her doggy stroller.

In its inaugural year, the poll gives just a hint of how Democratic voters might be leaning six months before the November election. With a $40 conference registration fee as the only qualification for voting, 162 people filled out pink ballots and placed them in a small, wooden box.

Tom Slater, a Frederick attorney and chairman of the Western Maryland Democratic Caucus, said the event is geared toward boosting activism in the region. The straw poll is not necessarily a bellwether of how state voters might cast their ballots, he said.

"The Republicans do predominate in politics in Western Maryland; what we want to do is try to reverse that," he said.

In addition to schmoozing and voting, attendees also participated in workshops about message development and running successful campaigns. They wore one, two, three and sometimes four candidates' campaign stickers, a sign that not everyone has made a decision about whom to support in the contests for governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general and comptroller.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the longtime Democratic incumbent, said he has not yet decided whether he'll run for re-election, but he did not sound like a candidate for office.

Curran, who is O'Malley's father-in-law, mused briefly on his record of service and the work his office has done through the years to tackle issues such as youth smoking and violence on television. His remarks seemed more of a postmortem on his two decades as attorney general than a play for voter support.

"I want to thank you for giving me the chance to do it," said Curran, 74, who left shortly after speaking. "We'll see what the future holds for all of us."

Montgomery County Council President Tom Perez, a potential candidate for attorney general who has lobbied quietly for Curran's blessing should he choose not to run, spoke of Curran's time in office in the past tense. "When I think of Joe, I think of a person who first and foremost fought for the underdog," said Perez, who said he would run if Curran does not.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, who has made no secret of his interest in the attorney general's job, said Democrats must run on ideas, not just the failings of the Republican Party. "We can't just talk about the bad things they do," Gansler said. "We need to talk about the things we are going to do."

Curran received 68 votes from the crowd, while Gansler got 45 and Perez earned 40.

Several candidates for U.S. Senate - each hoping to take on Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the leading Republican contender - came in search of support.

U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, displayed fist-pumping vigor, telling the audience that one of the most important qualities in this year's race is the ability to win.

"We need to be together early in this campaign if we're going to be able to win this seat," Cardin said.

Former congressman and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume politely disagreed. "I believe we need a campaign in this state, not a coronation," he said. He said his upbringing, which included gang involvement and a subsequent turnaround, would bring a different perspective to the Senate.

Allan Lichtman, an American University professor and first-time candidate, told the crowd, "Party insiders don't pick your leaders, you the voters pick your leaders, which is why I am running in this race."

Lise Van Susteren, a psychologist and sister of Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren, and Josh Rales, a Montgomery County businessman, also spoke. Van Susteren said that with her in the Senate, stem cell research would receive more federal funding. Rales promoted his independence and promised not to take money from political action committees.

Cardin garnered 58 votes, compared with 39 for Lichtman and 38 for Mfume, with other contenders trailing.

In the most lop-sided vote of the day, Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, collected 154 votes in his upstart bid for comptroller, with incumbent William Donald Schaefer getting just 6.

Grace DiPietro of Sykesville said she had already settled on O'Malley for governor. But one look at her aqua sweater - which was covered with stickers for Lichtman, Mfume and Van Susteren - proved she was certainly undecided about whom to back for Senate.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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