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The Next Mayor Is...

...Out There Somewhere. Who Wants the Job, And Who Could Actually Win It?

Tom Chalkley

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 5/17/2006

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It’s awfully quiet.

Six months from now, the city of Baltimore will find out whether Mayor Martin O’Malley will be leaving town to move into the governor’s mansion. (Assuming he wins the September primary against Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, of course.) And the question on our minds is: What next? Where are the rising politicians poised to swoop in and shape the city’s future should O’Malley’s gubernatorial campaign bear fruit?

According to the city charter, if O’Malley leaves office, City Council President Sheila Dixon will serve out the remaining 11 months of his mayoral term, which doesn’t officially expire until December 2007. If she wants to keep the seat beyond that point, she’ll have to campaign for it, just like anyone else.

Dixon, once viewed as the heir apparent to the O’Malley administration, is carrying some serious baggage these days. She’s repeatedly run afoul of the city’s ethics laws, first in 2003 when she was revealed to be one of several City Council members to employ a family member. She was also one of several council members who accepted gifts from cable TV provider Comcast, despite the fact that Baltimore’s ethics laws prohibit elected officials from taking gifts from companies doing business with the city.

The investigation of those incidents ended without charges, but things got worse for Dixon earlier this year. In February, she was singled out for more possible ethics violations when The Sun revealed that she failed to disclose that her sister—fired from her job in Dixon’s office after the first ethics probe—took a job with a company called Utech, a minority subcontractor with Comcast. Dixon advocated on behalf of the company during a hearing on Comcast’s use of minority contractors, though ethics laws note that council members should not participate in any business involving siblings or family members. State prosecutors also learned that she had steered $600,000 in city money to her former campaign chairman Dale Clark without a contract. State prosecutors are conducting an investigation of the City Council president that seems to widen as the months go by.

The allegations and investigation have put a new twist on the 2007 mayoral race; Will the city electorate put its trust in Dixon when and if she runs?

“People want honesty and integrity in their leadership,” says Cheryl Benton, president of CA Benton Associates, a Washington-based political consulting firm that has represented Dixon in previous campaigns. “The world is turned upside down in many ways right now. Folks are searching for someone who will give them a sense of well-being and someone who really cares about what is happening.”

If any local politicians fancy themselves that sort of leader, they certainly aren’t making much noise about honesty and integrity right now. Instead, it seems, they are content to sit back and watch the political drama unfold through the end of this year, when voters will determine whether O’Malley is staying here or heading to Annapolis.

But rest assured, the gears that keep the city’s political machine functioning are constantly moving. Lunches are being had. Consultants are being called. Promotional photos are being processed. Campaign materials are being considered. Deals are being made.

“I know a lot of people who are gearing up,” says Frank Conaway, clerk of the Baltimore City Circuit Court and an organizer, with campaign strategist Julius Henson, of a new organization called Metro Political Organization Inc., which calls itself a political “pressure group” that will back candidates running for office. “You can’t count out Ms. Dixon. Patricia Jessamy is acting like she’s running for mayor. Jill Carter is acting like she’s running for mayor. Joan Carter Conway is a possibility. Andrey Bundley is going to run.”

Metro Political, which incorporated in March, is holding meetings to discuss its strategy for the gubernatorial election—but it’s also keeping an eye open for promising candidates to run in next year’s mayoral race.

“We will participate in that election, whether we’re going to run someone specifically or back someone who is planning to run,” Conaway says.

The kind of candidate Metro Political and other political and civic organizations will be looking for, Conaway says, will be “hard-working, honest, and want to make a change” in the way the city approaches education, policing, and housing. “There are a lot of things that need to be done, and you need someone with the guts to do it, someone who can take the politics out of it and just do what needs to be done,” he says. “People are looking for big change in 2007, obviously.”

“Someone to lead the city out of its morass,” agrees Arthur Murphy, a political consultant and principal in the Annapolis-based consulting firm the Democracy Group. He says the city will need a candidate who can convince the average voter not only that he or she is better than the other candidates, but that improvements can be made in education, crime-reduction, and quality of life. “Baltimore is full of a depressed middle class that has no hope—particularly the people who’ve lived here forever,” Murphy says. “You have to give the city a sense of self in order to put anything forward.”

One of the unusual points about the city’s pending mayoral race, says Matthew Crenson, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, is that there is no candidate clearly anointed by the administration.

“In many cities, mayors sort of groom their successors, but O’Malley hasn’t done that,” he notes. Crenson contends that O’Malley appears to have distanced himself from Dixon since her alleged ethics violations have become public. Crenson speculates that O’Malley may not want to actively endorse Dixon as the next mayor—but neither does he want to take any chances by dismissing her or selecting someone else to prep for the job.

“Maybe he feels that, first, that would call attention to the problems [she’s having], and second, that whatever support Sheila Dixon has would be alienated,” Crenson says. “Since there is not a solid consensus [on candidates] in the black community, he probably does not want to alienate anyone.”

As of now, no one—including Dixon—will confirm or deny intentions of pursuing the office of mayor in 2007. But that doesn’t mean at least half a dozen experienced and serious individuals aren’t rumored to be mulling a run.

We’ve compiled a list (presented in alphabetical order) of the most promising among those and consulted various political consultants on the likelihood that each will throw his or her hat in the ring. It may seem awfully quiet out there right now, but here are a few people likely to make some noise by year’s end.

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