Democrats hunt for rural votes

O'Malley, party seek to make headway in regions usually dominated by GOP

Maryland Votes 2006

19 Days Until Nov. 7

October 19, 2006|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

HAGERSTOWN -- Mayor Martin O'Malley and Democratic Party leaders know they cannot beat Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in conservative strongholds like this Western Maryland city.

But that hasn't stopped them from trying to energize Democrats in the state's conservative-leaning rural regions.

"I'm here in Washington County because Western Maryland is very, very important to the outcome of this statewide race," O'Malley, a Democrat, said before a recent speech here.

O'Malley's strategy for a statewide win in the governor's race is to make sure he does not lose rural regions as badly as party nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend did four years ago, while securing large victories in the heavily Democratic jurisdictions of Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section misstated which gubernatorial candidate won the endorsement in 2002 of AFSCME Council 92, which represents mostly correctional officers and handles collective bargaining for nearly all state employees. The union endorsed Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

In 2002, Ehrlich trounced the former lieutenant governor outside the traditional Democratic core, with his margin of victory in the pivotal battleground of Baltimore County providing enough for his win.

O'Malley aides say they believe enhanced organizational efforts in Western Maryland and voter worries over prison violence is giving the mayor momentum that Townsend lacked in Allegany, Garrett, Frederick and Washington counties.

The state GOP scoffs at the Democratic push, and says its longtime coordinated efforts in the area will easily carry Western Maryland, where 47 percent of registered voters are Republicans and 37 percent are Democrats. In the four Western Maryland counties, Ehrlich won 67 percent of the vote in 2002. "We are very confident that not only we will win Western Maryland but that we will increase the margins," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party.

A Sun poll last month found Ehrlich maintaining strong support in rural Maryland, leading O'Malley by 14 points. But that is less than his lead in January 2005, when the governor led the mayor by 18 points.

Some Ehrlich supporters concede that the governor's lead might have slipped slightly because of poor management and conditions in state correctional facilities. Western Maryland is home to several prisons and institutions run by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Violence this year has led to the killings of two correctional officers and nonfatal stabbings of three others.

"This is Ehrlich country," said Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat who supports the GOP incumbent. "I think there are problems with corrections, but there have always been problems with corrections."

The management problems led AFSCME Council 92 to endorse O'Malley, said Executive Director Ron Bailey. The union represents mostly correctional officers and handles collective bargaining for nearly all state employees. Four years ago, it backed Ehrlich.

Ehrlich has landed the endorsement of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police and the Maryland Classified Employees Association, which represents police, correctional and other state employees.

No quid pro quo

Robert Stephens, president of the MCEA, said Council 92 backed O'Malley because the mayor supports legislation allowing the union to collect fees on all state employees, not just its union members, to pay for its collective bargaining authority. Ehrlich opposes the fee. Bailey said O'Malley told the union that he does not oppose the fee, but that there was no quid pro quo for the endorsement.

The governor has worked to ease tensions with correctional officers with pay raises this year and legislation to hire retirees to offset staffing problems, said Kelly, the delegate. He said he did not know if that would be enough to mend divisions, but he added that there is not enough discontent to translate into enhanced Democratic turnout. "Ehrlich has been very good to this part of the state on highway projects and by giving us the first high school in 50 years to be constructed in Allegany County," Kelly said. "These [correctional] employees are not one-issue people."

O'Malley made the drive from Baltimore last week to meet with Hagerstown business leaders at a hotel conference room here. As he pulled off Interstate 70, large blue Ehrlich signs greeted him.

Correctional officers endorsed Ehrlich in 2002 believing the prison system could not get worse, the mayor said. "But it has," O'Malley said. "I think we will do much better in Western Maryland then we did four years ago."

Derek B. Walker, the state Democratic Party executive director, said local central committees have been trained since last year to use databases to reach voters with phone calls and door-to-door visits. The party is also targeting by phone 8,000 voters in Western Maryland to encourage them to vote by absentee ballot, said Patricia Heck, chairwoman of the Washington County Democratic Central Committee.

One difference between O'Malley and Townsend, Walker and Heck said, is that local Democratic candidates are not reluctant to be seen with the mayor, who they say has made more appearances in their part of the state.

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