O'Malley looms in city contests

Allies, foes still deal with legacy at home

December 03, 2006|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

Just when Martin O'Malley thought he was out of Baltimore politics by being elected Maryland governor, candidates for citywide offices are clearly planning to pull him back in.

The governor-elect is set to leave City Hall for Annapolis in January, but the two-term mayor is expected to continue to play a pivotal role in Baltimore politics as the 2007 city elections heat up.

His financial and organizational support will strengthen any candidate he endorses -- whether his backing is overt or behind the scenes, political observers say.

And his name is likely to play two other roles: successful leader and punching bag.

Candidates for the offices of mayor, City Council president and comptroller are falling into two competing camps: pro-O'Malley and anti-O'Malley.

City Council President Sheila Dixon, who will become mayor in January when O'Malley is sworn in as governor, has usually delivered council support for O'Malley's agenda since they were elected to their current positions in 1999. During their re-election campaigns, they ran as a team.

Next year, as Dixon campaigns as the incumbent mayor, she can claim the same type of progress that O'Malley sold to voters in his race for governor. But as the sitting mayor, she will also have to endure whatever crises arise over the next year and answer for whatever lingering resentment might exist toward O'Malley.

"People are looking for independence," said Julius Henson, a longtime political consultant aligned with Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.

Pratt has said she will run for mayor, setting up a challenge with Dixon, her fellow church member.

As the Democratic primary approaches, Pratt is likely to portray herself as the only citywide elected official who was a constant check on O'Malley, Henson said.

"When Sheila expresses her love for [O'Malley], we will have a film crew there to record it, and it will replay in September," Henson said.

Not that Pratt will try to distance herself totally from the popular mayor. Her name appeared on campaign signs with O'Malley and Dixon during the 2003 city primary and 2004 city general election. But she is likely to point out how her auditing function worked to help O'Malley root out waste, even when his administration privately did not welcome the assistance.

More choices

Three other possible mayoral candidates -- Del. Jill P. Carter, Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. and former high school principal Andre Bundley -- will not be shy about trying to capitalize on what they see as an undercurrent of discontent with O'Malley.

All three have been frequent and vocal critics of O'Malley's policies, especially on crime.

Although O'Malley scored strong support from city voters this year in his gubernatorial campaign, Conaway predicts that Baltimore residents will reward independence and not be as supportive of candidates who are seen as having consistently backed O'Malley.

"Voters don't like people who carry water," Conaway said.

When he announced his bid last month, Conaway's statement was filled with anti-O'Malley sentiment. "We have buried our heads in the sand while the city has fallen apart around us," Conaway wrote. "We cannot continue to rely on false statistics that have been manipulated for political purposes."

Conaway points to the vote totals from the 2003 Democratic primary. Bundley was the only candidate to mount a credible challenge to O'Malley. Although the mayor won by one of the largest margins in a Democratic primary, Bundley still secured 30 percent.

Conaway said someone with that many votes could emerge victorious from a Democratic primary, particularly if Dixon, Pratt and Carter end up competing for the black female vote.

Arthur Murphy, a partner at Democracy Group, an Annapolis-based political consulting firm, said political donors throughout Baltimore will ask O'Malley whom they should support.

"He'll be pushing money in one direction or the other, especially in the top three spots," said Murphy, whose firm is working with Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.

Mitchell, who is contemplating a run for a citywide office such as mayor or council president, said anyone who has a chance to get O'Malley's support will be in Annapolis seeking it.

Kingmaker

"Come January, when O'Malley is governor, I'm sure those who are interested in citywide offices will make their pilgrimage to Annapolis to kiss the ring," Mitchell said.

The councilman said he would likely strike a balance between independence -- noting how he opposed public financing of a convention center hotel -- and being a team player, including leading a city bailout of public schools.

"Mitchell is ideally positioned in some ways," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "He has done enough on the council to show he has his own mind, and, at the same time, he hasn't been one of the mayor's biggest antagonists."

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