Duncan hit hard, and it echoes

June 25, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

And, just like that, Doug Duncan supporters -- or at least all open-minded voters who were willing to consider Duncan for governor instead of just giving his younger, prettier Democratic primary opponent a free pass -- are supposed to forget everything he had to say and slap a Martin O'Malley bumper sticker over their Duncan one. Is that it?

I know: That's politics. But, in this case, easier deigned than done.

Those who had their eye on Duncan, and who considered him a man of substance and accomplishment, are supposed to -- what? -- erase everything on the hard drive? If you were among those who found Duncan an interesting, thoughtful and bright candidate, someone who looked as good on paper as O'Malley does on camera, then you'll probably have a hard time simply dismissing everything he had to say and moving on.

I'm skeptical of the claim that Duncan's withdrawal spares the party an internal fight that would leave the winner scarred. Duncan had already taken plenty of shots at O'Malley and reminded voters entranced with the mayor that a gubernatorial election should not be a beauty contest.

On June 14, at a candidates forum before the Greater Washington Board of Trade in Bethesda, Duncan said this about O'Malley: "He does not have a firm grasp of the issues facing the people of Maryland."

Not exactly a love tap.

According to The Sun's report of the event, Duncan showed that he was well-versed in transportation issues in the D.C. suburbs while O'Malley could not identify "two or three [transportation] initiatives" that he supports in the region.

Duncan said O'Malley and the Republican incumbent, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., "are good at politics, but not governing ... good at press releases and election-year gimmicks, but not at finding and implementing real, long-term solutions to improve our state."

Duncan described O'Malley's support of the controversial Inter-County Connector as disingenuous because the mayor supported the project but criticized Ehrlich's plan to pay for it.

"Take a position. Be a man," Duncan said of the mayor after the event.

(Be a man? I'm surprised O'Malley didn't challenge him to a little one-on-one in the parking lot.)

On the failings of city schools -- and last week's announcement that Bonnie Copeland would step down as the system's CEO -- the Duncan campaign said: "Dr. Copeland's abrupt and inexplicable departure signals a school system under siege and belies all of the mayor's braggadocios, posturing and cherry-picking of statistics."

Duncan attacked both the mayor and governor for bickering over the city schools instead of fixing them. "With many of Baltimore's schools failing," Duncan said in the TV ad with life-size cardboard cutouts of O'Malley and Ehrlich, "these guys have spent all their time fighting for political advantage."

On efforts at crime reduction in Baltimore, O'Malley's main brag, Duncan challenged the mayor's claims of progress, saying: "This guy says crime's dropped by 40 percent, but he's got a problem with numbers." He repeatedly questioned the way Baltimore police recorded crime statistics, used the term "cooked the books," and accused the O'Malley administration of artificially inflating arrest statistics.

That's a pileup of significant criticism not easily dismissed by independent-minded Democrats who don't march in lock step with the party leadership, who resented O'Malley's status as the anointed candidate and who liked to have another choice. While we're not going to have the bloody, costly Democratic primary campaign pundits had predicted, Duncan still left Ehrlich with some juicy sound bites to use against the mayor. ("Here's what members of Martin O'Malley's own party have said ...")

Duncan has also left Marylanders with one less alternative, one less point of comparison, in their 2006 choices for governor.

With his withdrawal from the campaign, there is now no major candidate opposed to the big, dumb mega-development near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore. Ehrlich lamely says the $1 billion development is a local matter. O'Malley backpedaled from his original concerns and said the state should not cut off funds to local jurisdictions that approve such projects. Duncan, on the other hand, opposed the project, calling it a "complete subversion" of Smart Growth policies and said state funds should not support it.

Duncan's withdrawal also represents a loss of the only major candidate willing to support a higher tax on cigarettes to raise funds for medical care for low-income families and children. As described in The Sun, Duncan would have sought to raise $200 million through the new tax on cigarettes to enroll 30,000 uninsured children in health care programs, double the income limit for Medicaid eligibility, boost funding for drug treatment, help small businesses insure employees, lower prescription drug costs and guarantee access to abortion services and birth control.

Neither O'Malley nor Ehrlich support raising the cigarette tax, and Duncan dismissed his opponents' health care plans as "two-page press releases."

At one point in the campaign, Duncan cracked, "What's [O'Malley] going to do as governor if he doesn't have me around giving him ideas?"

Not exactly a love tap.

But that was then. This is now.

Now Duncan has withdrawn from the campaign and pledged support for O'Malley -- as if, just like that, all Duncan said in criticism of the ambitious young mayor goes poof into the ionosphere, Duncan votes move to O'Malley, O'Malley defeats Ehrlich in November, and the Maryland Democratic Party lives happily ever after. Easier deigned than done.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

To hear Dan Rodricks on the radio, tune in to WBAL (1090 AM) from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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