BOSTON – Maryland Democrats gabbed and laughed as they snacked on crab cakes and rumaki and downed their complimentary beers, all courtesy of Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan.
Officially, the happy hour at the Bell in Hand tavern was held to boost the Maryland delegation’s morale and enthusiasm for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. But national party conventions are also a chance for ambitious local politicians to raise their profile and gather support for the day they announce they’re seeking higher office. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who many anticipate will face off for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in two years, did just that at this week’s Democratic National Convention. “They are doing what they can to make friends and to showcase themselves and their ideas at events like this because you never know what’s coming down the road,” said convention delegate Dan Rupli, a Frederick lawyer and Democratic Party activist.
Each rented a bar to throw a party. O’Malley’s party at The Place, a downtown Boston tavern, went into the early morning and had would-be revelers waiting outside after the club reached its capacity. The mayor, an amateur guitarist, even jammed with the band.
Duncan’s late-afternoon reception at the Bell in Hand, down the block from historic Faneuil Hall, was more subdued as delegates noshed on hors d’oeuvres before heading back to the Fleet Center for Tuesday evening’s convention activities. Each emceed a Maryland delegation daily breakfast featuring big-name speakers. O’Malley nabbed U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume while Duncan got AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Duncan and O’Malley relentlessly engaged in hand-shaking and back-slapping to build rapport with fellow Democrats.
And there’s the tchotchkes: Gift bags given to delegates at O’Malley’s breakfast contained CD-ROMs with television commercials for his mayoral re-election, CDs of his Irish folk-rock band “O’Malley’s March” and green-and-white “O’Malley” T-shirts. Duncan’s gift bag contained mostly non-Duncan-related goodies such as phone cards and union-sponsored key chains. The lone political item was a bumper sticker: “Free Maryland: Recall Bob.” A good campaign fund can cover any of these, but O’Malley scored something priceless for the up-and-coming politician: a featured speech on the convention floor. He spoke about safeguarding America’s cities from terrorism Wednesday evening immediately after the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But the civil rights leader is a tough act to follow. The speech was broadcast on C-SPAN, but the television networks cut away to commentary just before O’Malley took the podium. People seated in some sections of the Fleet Center could not hear it because of microphone glitch, but the Maryland section was enthusiastic. O’Malley had considered running for governor in 2002 but never signed up, saying he wanted to focus on running Baltimore. Asked directly if he’ll seek higher office in the next state election, O’Malley said, “We’ll deal with that when we come to it.” He added that he had no plans to announce his intentions any time soon.
Duncan sidestepped the question in a similar fashion: “We’re focused on getting John Kerry elected. We’ll let ’06 play out,” he said. At Thursday’s Maryland delegation breakfast, which Duncan emceed, U.S. Rep. Al Wynn feigned a Freudian slip after being introduced. He thanked “Governor Duncan – I’m sorry – County Executive Duncan.”