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Do the Tighten Up

By Russ Smith | Posted 4/26/2006

Last weekend, while having dinner with some buddies, the question was posed as to whether Robert Ehrlich’s re-election prospects were more favorable facing Martin O’Malley or Doug Duncan. My friends, moderate to conservative voters, citing the mayor’s nearly blank-check support from The Sun and lead in the polls, hoped that the dull Montgomery County executive would somehow prevail over O’Malley in September’s Democratic primary. It’s all about Baltimore County, one explained, and Ehrlich’s support there, where he creamed Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002, will be undercut by the mayor.

I don’t agree. The mayor is glitzier than Duncan, but he’s far more prone to make campaign mistakes. As of now, O’Malley leads Ehrlich in the Gonzales Research and Rasmussen polls, with Duncan showing a smaller lead over the incumbent. O’Malley bests Ehrlich by nine points in the April 18 Rasmussen release; Duncan over the governor by two. Gonzales’ poll, also released last week, had O’Malley over Ehrlich by five points.

Not mentioned in the stories about the race, both from liberal and conservative outlets, is that Ehrlich—whose favorability rating seems static at a so-so 50 percent—was trailing O’Malley by a margin of 48-33 percent in the Sun-sponsored Potomac poll published last November. Duncan, at the time, didn’t really register, but he’s become better known month by month, battering both Ehrlich and O’Malley with methodical attacks.

The mayor is inevitably described by out-of-state political analysts and reporters as “charismatic,” an attribute that’s wearing thin in Maryland, aside from his most die-hard supporters. O’Malley’s national political trajectory, once seemingly limitless, has dimmed, particularly in the past 18 months. There’s a reason why mayors rarely ascend to higher office; their jobs are very difficult and a lot more time-consuming than that of a governor or senator, with any number of political frozen pipes likely to burst at any time.

O’Malley’s objection to state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick’s smart plan to turn over 11 city schools to the state—blocked by the Democratic-controlled legislature—drew criticism even from traditional Ehrlich opponents such as the Sun’s Dan Rodricks. O’Malley called Grasmick’s decision a “cheap shot political move,” while Duncan took the high road, saying, “We need to put education, and the children of Baltimore, first, not politics.” But Rodricks wrote on April 13, “It’s a shame the state takeover didn’t go through. If, as a result, more kids get a better education, I don’t care who gets the credit.” And The Washington Post, in another precursor to a Duncan endorsement, ran an April 10 editorial, “Baltimore’s Disgrace,” saying the takeover is “long overdue” and “the need for urgent, even dramatic action is clear.”

O’Malley’s comments about homeland security have been well-documented—saying that he was more scared of George W. Bush than Osama bin Laden is rife for an Ehrlich commercial this fall—but he never stops speaking before thinking. Last week, while the BGE rate-hike fiasco played out, O’Malley’s campaign compared Ehrlich’s tepid compromise to one of a “loan shark,” a really dumb remark that the pol he most resembles, Bill Clinton, wouldn’t have made.

It’s hard to tell how the energy rate hikes will play out over the campaign, and we still don’t have the final picture. On the one hand, the increased cost is coming on Ehrlich’s watch, even though Democrats engineered the deal back in 1999. Still, people surveyed in the Gonzales poll put more of the blame on the state’s legislature, which inexplicably killed a decent deal at the last minute, confounding even the anti-Ehrlich Sun and Washington Post. In the Gonzales poll, only 12 percent of the 819 registered voters blamed Ehrlich for the upcoming sticker shock.

On April 21, O’Malley blasted Ehrlich’s deal with Constellation Energy Group (parent of BGE), saying the governor’s phase-in compromise “is not a rate relief package, it’s a rate disbelief package.” The governor countered by asking, “What could be easier than sitting in the bleachers and throwing rocks?” In truth, while Ehrlich hardly drew serious concessions from Constellation, he managed to get something done, which shouldn’t hurt his political standing. That is, unless Constellation CEO Mayo Shattuck, in negotiation for his company’s merger with Florida’s FLP Group, winds up with a $50 million payday. Such sums aren’t uncommon in the business world, but the publicity would be a damaging blow to Ehrlich.

O’Malley’s in somewhat of a bind right now. He’s trying to ignore Duncan, but as the primary draws closer he’ll be forced to debate his rival, where education, crime, and perhaps City Council President Sheila Dixon’s allegedly questionable ethics will be brought up. At the same time, Ehrlich’s projected $15-$20 million war chest will be at work with television advertising, while O’Malley, also well-funded, is forced to spend time and money fending off Duncan.

November’s election, at this point, promises to be a tight one, but despite O’Malley’s alleged “charisma,” Ehrlich’s campaign ought to be more worried about the less bombastic Duncan.

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