Aides cast best light on O'Malley shuffle

Maryland Votes 2006

May 23, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

With Mayor Martin O'Malley in Las Vegas yesterday pitching Baltimore as a supermarket destination, his campaign was left to sell its recent abrupt leadership change as a routine, positive shift -- not a sign of trouble.

The O'Malley campaign announced Sunday night that it had replaced the campaign manager, Jonathan A. Epstein, with Josh White, former head of the Maryland Democratic Party. The mayor also elevated the role of Peter O'Malley, his brother and two-time former campaign manager.

The campaign said it wanted a manager and senior staff steeped in Maryland issues and attuned to the mayor's expectations. Epstein, an Alabama native, was hired in March 2005 and took the reins of an organization long steered by a tight circle of advisers, especially Peter O'Malley.

"It was probably a personality difference between his brother or the mayor" and Epstein, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. O'Malley's campaign "is a family-type operation," he said.

Campaign officials continued to praise Epstein for marshaling an organization that has put O'Malley ahead of his Democratic rival in money and polls. They indicated that the change was more about pursuing a strategy centered on Maryland issues.

"We're taking all the things that have been happening and ratcheting everything up," White said.

Some observers view such changes as routine, but opponents doubted the campaign's positive spin.

"To have such a dramatic change less than four months before the primary election signals that his campaign is obviously in trouble," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland GOP. "You have to put some kind of spin on bad news."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, O'Malley's Democratic rival in the Sept. 12 primary, seized on the comment from the mayor's campaign that it wanted leaders familiar with Maryland issues and called for debate on those matters.

"For me, this campaign has always been about Maryland. ... Now that the mayor has decided that the focus of his campaign is Maryland, he should prove it by debating me and letting the voters choose," Duncan said in a statement.

Matthew Crenson, chairman of the Johns Hopkins University political science department, said changes in campaign personnel, though common, frequently indicate that "the candidate or his close advisers think the campaign isn't going the way they would like it to."

"What that seems to say is that O'Malley has some cause for concern and he'd better get someone in there who can fend off an offensive by Duncan," Crenson said.

The leadership change in O'Malley's campaign follows Duncan's nearly $300,000, monthlong push into Baltimore with several hard-hitting television commercials questioning the mayor's record on crime and schools.

The O'Malley campaign has not countered Duncan's commercials with its own, even though it has far more resources. Duncan's campaign reported having $1.4 million on hand in January. O'Malley reported $4.2 million.

One O'Malley aide said there was routine internal debate about whether to air commercials in May, sweeps month, and that the decision not to do so had nothing to do with Epstein's departure.

"When questions come up about `Do you match dollar for dollar right now with Duncan or do you continue to wait until November?' I'm certain, as in every campaign, there were differences of opinion," Senate President Miller said.

Epstein said he departed by mutual agreement and that the commercials had nothing to do with his leaving.

"Martin O'Malley is a good man, and I wish him all the best," Epstein said. "I think we were able to make astonishing progress over the last 15 months since I was hired. I am very encouraged about the strength of this campaign moving forward."

Some political observers, including Crenson and consultant Arthur W. Murphy, said Duncan had no choice but to air the commercials to improve his low name recognition in Baltimore.

A poll released in April by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies found Duncan trailing O'Malley 44 percent to 35 percent, with 21 percent undecided.

James Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, College Park, said O'Malley's decision not to spend money on commercials might have been smart because many voters will not tune in until just before the Sept. 12 primary.

White said the race is getting "down to the wire" and that O'Malley's campaign will increase his visibility and step up efforts to get his message out. He would not say whether that meant commercials would air soon.

The campaign has stepped up its criticism of Duncan's commercials by branding them misleading.

Audra Miller said White and Peter O'Malley will only step up what she said will be more aggressive "dirty campaign tactics."

She accused White of being associated with an effort to entice an aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. into spreading rumors about O'Malley on a Republican Web site. The aide, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., resigned and apologized to O'Malley.

Audra Miller said Peter O'Malley helped create the statistics analysis system for City Hall that critics say is used to manipulate O'Malley's record in city government.

"That's quite a load coming from the Ehrlich folks, who use the IRS in an effort to shut down the NAACP, laundered money in the Abramoff scandal, authored the BGE rate hike and introduced us to the Prince of Darkness and the Avenging Ice Dancer," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "It's like getting advice on good manners from Tony Soprano."

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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