WASHINGTON – An average of twice a week for the past six weeks, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley could be found in Washington, testifying before congressional subcommittees or attending conferences or luncheons of movers and shakers.
Aides insist that O’Malley is just doing his job as a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and one of the closest big-city mayors to the capital.
But others note that O’Malley’s 14 appearances in Washington since October give the impression that he is raising his profile for a potential run for governor — a boon to the young mayor regardless of what he’s actually got up his sleeve.
“It’s in his interest to create the impression that he’s running,” said Blair Lee, political columnist for the Montgomery Journal. “That’s the game.”
Lee said the game could be to run, or to elicit more money for the city from Gov. Parris Glendening, who would be eager to head off a potentially strong party challenge to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the current Democratic front-runner for governor.
“Martin O’Malley is in a position to milk the Glendening/Townsend administration for every penny that he can get for Baltimore,” Lee said.
Others said it could just be O’Malley’s way of raising his profile generally, which would also help him govern the often-embattled city.
“It helps him to be a more effective mayor,” said former Mayor Kurt Schmoke. “I think he understands that it helps him govern if he is viewed as a statewide or national candidate.”
O’Malley has not said he will run for governor next year, but he has done little to quash such speculation.
When Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan announced he would not challenge Townsend in the Democratic primary, O’Malley said it was “sad that there is no experienced candidate with his (Duncan’s) know-how in the race.” Despite Townsend’s presence in the race, O’Malley has repeatedly called for a “leader” to fight for the top spot.
Campaign reports filed earlier this month showed that O’Malley has raised $860,000 in the past year — still about $1 million less than Townsend raised in the same period.
O’Malley has said he will make an announcement on the governor’s race in the spring. Until then, his staff says, he is focused on being mayor — even when that includes high-profile trips to Washington.
“It has helped develop a national profile for the mayor, but it wasn’t done with that in mind,” said O’Malley spokesman Tony White.
White noted that O’Malley is chairman of the federal-local law enforcement task force for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has required him to visit Washington quite a few times since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Schmoke said it is easy to get swept up in major events like Sept. 11. For Schmoke, it was his suggestion that the war on drugs was not working and that government might consider decriminalization of narcotics that force him into the Washington spotlight.
The decriminalization speech during his first term — Schmoke was mayor from 1987 until 1999 — started him on a whirlwind tour of TV shows, Capitol Hill appearances and interviews.
“Events can overtake you,” he said.
But political analysts note that some of O’Malley’s events have been of his own making, including campaigning in Frederick for a mayoral candidate and attending former South African President Nelson Mandela’s speech in College Park.
O’Malley could be “building a resume for himself,” said Candice Nelson, American University government professor.
“Given that he’s the mayor of Baltimore, he’s better known in that part of the state than in this part,” said Nelson, associate director of American’s government department and director of the Campaign Management Institute.
Frank DiFilippo, a political analyst for the Baltimore Business Journal and WBAL radio, said O’Malley is definitely using his appearances on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Mayors to create the impression that he will challenge Townsend.
“Martin is a risk taker, an opportunist who will seize an opportunity if he sees one,” he said.
“Let’s face it, in politics, she (Townsend) could flop in next four months,” DiFilippo said. “If the opportunity presents itself, he will take it.”
But he also pointed out that O’Malley would not get into a race he might lose. Current polls show him trailing Townsend in a head-to-head race, but the margins vary widely.
“She’s pretty much the de facto candidate in the Democratic Party,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.
A Mason-Dixon poll in July gave Townsend a 49 to 28 percent lead over O’Malley in a potential Democratic primary, with 23 percent undecided.
But a May poll by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communication cut it much closer: It showed O’Malley with 40 percent of a Democratic primary vote and Townsend with 47 percent. O’Malley was the “only candidate that gave her a real challenge,” said the firm’s Carol Arscott.
Regardless, Coker said O’Malley would have to run a hard campaign against Townsend, which could hurt him in the long run.
“I’m not sure how voters would react to him running for governor after he hasn’t even completed one term as mayor,” he said. “Some people might see him as being a little too ambitious too quickly.”