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June 24, 2005

The Longest Primary

Roy Meachum

Considerable speculation has been published about the fancy dancing being staged here, there and everywhere by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan.

What makes their dancing "fancy" is the way they assiduously avoid bumping into each other. The speculation seems to center on who might be the first to announce he is indeed a candidate for the Democrat's nomination to run against GOP Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

Meanwhile, of course, we have such curious stories as the mayor spending two hours with his Rockville counterpart who promptly let it be known he had provided no endorsement for the gentleman from Baltimore. Endorse what?

Equally bizarre was Mr. O'Malley hiring a stadium and raising a reported $2 million. For what?

Both questions are entirely rhetorical. Everybody knows the answers. It makes no difference when they pull off the formality of "tossing their hats in the ring," a phrase neither Democrat might choose. After all, it was coined by Republican Teddy Roosevelt.

The only really big news would be if either pulls out of the race, which seems from here highly unlikely. For all the splash and brass promoted by Mr. O'Malley, the odds are slim to none that Mr. Duncan will willingly cede their party's nomination.

With the primary some 15 months off, that stadium affair looks mighty like the mayor's attempt to convince Mr. Duncan he should be content with the beauties of Montgomery County. Why else would he stage so early what his camp has touted as the largest single fundraising event in Maryland's history?

Sashaying into the city where Mr. Duncan hangs his executive's hat to court Rockville's mayor summons to mind the delicious "chutzpah," the Yiddish word for audacity that surpasses understanding. Mr. O'Malley has lots of that.

Mr. Duncan's strength against that force may be dogged determination. He was quietly pestering Democrats across the state while the ashes were still hot from the shambles of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's losing campaign. We discussed his taking a shot at Annapolis during a thank-you party given by Mrs. Townsend for her supporters.

Mr. O'Malley started even earlier. He was widely reported mulling the possibility of taking on Mrs. Townsend in the 2002 primary, a move that was scotched supposedly by advice from his father-in-law, the former lieutenant governor and present Maryland attorney general, Joseph Curran.

No one I know can imagine that the ambitious kid taught by Washington's Gonzaga High Jesuits was unaware of the politically powerful Curran clan before he dropped down on one knee, or however he proposed to the lady who now presides over a District Court in Baltimore. Becoming a judge in Maryland has much to do with clout when it can be invoked; she could and her father did.

During the course of practicing my trade in Frederick, I came to know and like Joe Curran; I trust his ethics totally. But readers should know how the O'Malley family has achieved its prominence, at least partially.

It's the nature of the beast that clout attracts counter-clout and, in Mr. O 'Malley's case, he has some powerful detractors led by the man who used to have his job. Onetime Baltimore mayor, ex-governor and currently Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer makes no effort to hide his pique (at least) toward his successor. Whatever Mr. Schaefer does about the general elections, he can be counted on to back Mr. Duncan in the primaries. And he' s not alone.

In a state race, coming from Montgomery County counts as little asset, except when Maryland's generally wealthy and remarkably liberal jurisdiction is directly pitted against Baltimore as a home address. Much of Maryland resents the city's traditional political dominion over the rest of us.

Mr. Duncan benefits additionally from the abrasive style and cocky charm of his probable opponent. Even when Mr. O'Malley tries to charm, he can raise hackles, primarily, I believe, by the self-confidence he exudes in the way the average person sweats on a hot summer's day.

The gentlemen from Frederick's next-door county comes across as very unthreatening, at least that's how he struck me. He lacks the gift for creating an immediate impression, as I discovered in Mr. O'Malley the only time we met. (In Baltimore's Little Italy after theater I asked the waiter who came with the long white limousine parked out front, expecting the answer to be a rock star, or such. It was the then-newly elected mayor's of course. I talked to him about a former colleague now serving as his deputy.)

In this age of celebrity Mr. Duncan may be penalized by what I perceive as a quiet presence. It depends entirely on what kind of a campaign he runs, naturally. For good or bad, his name recognition lags behind Mr. O'Malley.

In the event, there are more important matters to discuss during what shapes up as Maryland's longest primary contest. When the gentlemen clear their throats for their official entry remains at the bottom of the list that must be cleared up before September 2006.




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