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Party Foul

By Russ Smith | Posted 5/31/2006

Democratic voters have no right to expect Martin O’Malley to air his campaign’s dirty laundry in public, but it’s not a smart strategy to insult the intelligence of those paying attention to the mayor’s increasingly contentious primary battle against Doug Duncan.

When it was announced May 21 that O’Malley had replaced campaign manager Jonathan Epstein—a John Kerry operative who’d been on board for 14 months—with Josh White, former head of the Maryland Democratic Party, the explanation bordered on the ridiculous. O’Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese was given the onerous job of spinning the news as an action that came “from a position of strength, not a position of weakness.” Naturally, Epstein’s removal was a “mutual decision,” which the deposed aide echoed in a May 23 Sun article, after refusing to comment to The Washington Post the day before. Never mind that a switch in campaign managers so close to an election usually signals trouble within a candidate’s organization; Epstein’s not going to jeopardize his livelihood by popping off to the media.

But when Abbruzzese said the action was taken because “The change in direction now is that this campaign will become more focused on Maryland and the people of Maryland,” it had to set off fire alarms inside the mayor’s campaign. O’Malley is running for governor of Maryland: Has he only now realized that his campaign should be “focused” on the citizens of this state? Of course not, but that’s a perception problem he doesn’t need. The spokesman’s gibberish notwithstanding, obviously O’Malley’s platform with Epstein at the helm was “focused” on Maryland, as he pummeled Gov. Robert Ehrlich on every occasion possible and tried to pretend that Duncan wasn’t a legitimate primary challenger.

In fact, although Duncan hasn’t an ounce of charisma or even an evident sense of humor, his steady, sober, and methodical approach to the contest against O’Malley is starting to give him traction. Local consultants and university political scientists were quick to point out that O’Malley leads in the (relatively stale) polls and fundraising, but haven’t yet mentioned what could be the turning point in the campaign later this summer. That would be the televised debates between O’Malley and Duncan before the Sept. 12 primary.

Will O’Malley blow his stack at some point on the same stage as Duncan, making the kind off-the-cuff remark that subsequently needs a dialing down—like saying he’s more afraid of the Bush administration than al-Qaida—or mind his manners and let the Montgomery County executive bore the audience with statistics about crime and the school system in Baltimore? My money’s on the former since O’Malley has never demonstrated the ability to swallow an attack on his performance as mayor.

This is Bob Ehrlich’s ideal scenario, even as he’s slammed daily by the Sun and Post for the BGE rate hike, cronyism, television commercials pitching the state’s tourist attractions, and war with the media. Unless Duncan makes an extraordinary gaffe early this summer, which seems unlikely, he’ll spend time and money belittling O’Malley, requiring the mayor to deplete a good portion of his financial war chest. It’s hard to see, whoever wins, a united front between the two candidates on Sept. 13.

O’Malley’s failure to win the endorsement of the Maryland State Teachers Association late last month—the 64,000-member group decided to give its support to whoever prevails in the primary—was at least a minor blow to his perception of inevitability, especially since the union did endorse Kweisi Mfume over Ben Cardin for U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, the Sun’s editorial page continues its steadfast support of O’Malley, running a disingenuous editorial on May 23 poking Ehrlich for supporting (before he was governor) an IRS audit of the NAACP—as if that organization adheres to its required nonpartisan status; Sun columnist Gregory Kane ripped its argument to shreds the next day. The editorial insisted Ehrlich’s action was a “partisan” attack on the NAACP, which uniformly backs Democratic candidates. Not once did the piece, headlined “Gubernatorial two-step,” mention the NAACP’s infamous 2000 advertisement blaming then-Gov. George W. Bush for the 1998 death of a black man in Texas. Nor did it mention, as did Kane, NACCP leader Julian Bond’s comparison of Bush’s administration to the Taliban.

On this issue, at least, O’Malley and Duncan were united. Both denounced Ehrlich’s completely sensible letter to the IRS, with Duncan calling it “political retribution,” and O’Malley’s campaign dismissing it as another dirty trick on the part of the governor. Besides Ehrlich’s general unworthiness, this may be the only issue the two candidates can agree upon.

There’s little doubt that Ehrlich, at least peripherally damaged by the GOP’s national disarray, will be the underdog in November’s general election. But at least, to the delight of his campaign, O’Malley and Duncan aren’t making it any easier for the Democrats to reclaim the statehouse.

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