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By Russ Smith | Posted 6/15/2005

Now is the time for Mayor Martin O’Malley to show off his political acumen by publicly denouncing Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean for his recent comment that the Republican Party is a monolithic mass of “white Christians.” Dean, a patrician who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, also drew attention by saying that many Republicans “have never made an honest living in their lives.”

Given that some nationally prominent Democrats—Sen. Joe Biden, John Edwards, and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, for example—have at least tepidly criticized Dean’s over-the-top blasts at the GOP, O’Malley is already behind the curve in making a pitch to Maryland’s independent and moderate Republican voters who’ve been offended by Dean.

Why give Gov. Robert Ehrlich the opportunity to lump hear-no-evil Democrats in the “politics of personal destruction” camp that Dean now leads? As the governor’s strategists constantly remind Marylanders, their boss comes from working-class roots, was a scholarship student at Gilman and Princeton, and if O’Malley doesn’t act quickly, Ehrlich will surely claim the moral high ground on the issue of making an “honest living.”

Assume, for the time being, that O’Malley dispatches Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan in the Democratic gubernatorial primary next year. Does the mayor really want Dean—if he’s still chairman in 2006—coming to Maryland on his behalf and risk an offhand slur against Ehrlich or Lt. Gov. Michael Steele? O’Malley has enough trouble keeping his own gaffes to a minimum: His remark last February, quickly clarified, that President George W. Bush is “attacking” American cities like al-Qaida was dumb. He doesn’t need Dean to alienate, for instance, the small but possibly decisive bloc of black voters who are socially conservative.

Rep. Harold Ford, a charismatic, young Democrat who’s running to replace Bill Frist as one of Tennessee’s senators, has made his move to distance himself from Dean. On June 9, Ford appeared on Don Imus’ syndicated talk-radio show and indicated he was unsure about having Dean campaign for him next year. Ford, who is black, said: “I’m a Democrat and I’m a God-fearing one. I grew up in church . . . I think Governor Dean sometimes gets a little excited at the mouth, and says things that are simply not true . . . [H]e does not speak for me, and I know he does not speak for a majority of Democrats and, I dare say, Republicans in my home state.”

The most recent Sun poll (published in April) showed O’Malley leading Ehrlich by a margin of 45-39 percent, which may lead to some complacency among his supporters. I think the mayor is not so comfortable with those numbers, which came after an uneventful legislative session in Annapolis. The April 25 issue of Time, which tapped O’Malley as one of the country’s top five big-city mayors, was good publicity nationally but won’t have much effect locally. One sentence in the blurb about “Wonk ’n’ Roller” O’Malley must’ve made him cringe: “O’Malley grew up in Washington’s tony Maryland suburbs but fell hard for blue-collar Baltimore while attending the University’s law school there.”

A more accurate assessment of the expected O’Malley-Ehrlich race appeared in the June 9 Washington Post. Reporter John Wagner, like most of his colleagues, quotes UMBC professor Thomas Schaller, an O’Malley supporter: “If you can show success in managing the toughest of the state’s 24 jurisdictions, you can make a good case that you’re qualified to lead the other 23.”

On the other hand, Wagner points out that since the last time this city’s mayor won the governorship (William Donald Schaefer in ’86), Baltimore’s voter clout has gone from first to fifth in the state, behind Montgomery, Baltimore, Prince George’s, and Anne Arundel counties. A report earlier this month that violent crime in Baltimore increased last year (4.2 percent over 2003) will surely be exploited by Republicans during the campaign.

As for the issue that won’t go away—slots—O’Malley has endorsed at least limited legalization in the city, a stand that Ehrlich will claim as a victory for his still-unrealized signature issue. The Sun’s editorial page has yet to criticize O’Malley for this view, but Sun columnist Dan Rodricks threw in the towel on slots in a May 15 column, tweaking O’Malley as a candidate “without an ounce of political courage or morality” for “jump[ing] back on the slots float” because he doesn’t want to lose the Preakness and wouldn’t mind some “campaign cabbage” from the gambling lobbyists.

Unless a recession hits Maryland very soon, O’Malley won’t get much traction on that issue, since the state’s unemployment rate continues to fall below the national average (4.3 percent in April). Even though Maryland remains a Democratic state, O’Malley can’t expect a coronation. That’s why it’s imperative to immediately repudiate Dean and the left-wing Bush/Ehrlich bashers and ingratiate the high percentage of voters who won’t adhere strictly to party affiliation.

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