CHESAPEAKE BEACH – Standing on a balcony of the Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa on Wednesday, dressed in an Oxford shirt and striped tie, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan listened patiently as local politicians told him about their concerns and needs for this bayside town of 4,000.
First, there is that traffic problem down at the bridge over the fishing creek — both congestion of cars and trucks on the bridge and of boats trying to pass beneath it.
Then there is the town’s sewer system. Built in the 1930s and 40s, it is aging and not able to accommodate Chesapeake Beach’s growing population.
And, said Chesapeake Beach’s Mayor Gerald W. Donovan, gesturing toward the Chesapeake Bay, “taking care of out here is everybody’s challenge.”
Though he comes from Maryland’s largest, wealthiest, and most politically active county, Duncan has been spending a lot of his time lately in places like Chesapeake Beach, doing retail politics and hearing about problems like traffic congestion and sewer systems.
On Friday, he was in Hagerstown, at the Memorial Recreation Center with the first African American council member in that city’s history. Alesia Parson-McBean gave Duncan a tour of the center, which she called “the stronghold of the community.”
As they walked through rooms with peeling paint, she outlined the center’s dire financial problems. It needs about $250,000 a year to operate full time, but it is only bringing in about $80,000.
Duncan also met with the Hagerstown-Washington Chamber of Commerce, whose members are concerned about health care, roads and funding for schools in their Western Maryland community.
When you are trying to run for governor, such travel comes with the territory, especially when you are struggling to get name recognition in areas of the state where the chief executive of a county of nearly a million people is not a household name.
“If they are not part of the Washington media market, they get to know me and I get to introduce myself,” said Duncan, who has visited 21 of Maryland’s 23 counties, as well as Baltimore City.
Calvert County is technically considered to be part of the Washington media market, but politicians like Duncan from Maryland’s Washington suburbs are no better known here than politicians from the Baltimore area.
The gubernatorial election is still a year away, but Duncan is facing a formidable challenge in the Democratic primary from Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who is also considered likely to run. Neither man has formally announced his candidacy, and it is entirely possible that one or the other will not declare. But as of now, it is a two-way race for the right to be the Democratic challenger to Governor Robert L. Ehrlich (R) in the November 2006 general election
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D, Prince George’s-Calvert) said that both Duncan and O’Malley are “formidable candidates,” but said Duncan has to compete with O’Malley’s greater name recognition across the state.
“He’s a great role model, an honest person, a decent person,” the Senate president said of Duncan. “The question is: Can he become well enough known to overcome the major hurdle of an O’Malley candidacy.”
A poll done by the Baltimore Sun in 2004 showed that Duncan is unknown to 47 percent of Maryland voters. That same percentage viewed O’Malley favorably.
Beyond gaining name recognition, Duncan is also trying to gain favor in Republican-leaning counties. In the 2002 gubernatorial election, Ehrlich won both Calvert and Washington counties by a significant margin against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
But it is still early and, judging by the reaction of officials in Chesapeake Beach and Washington County, Duncan is a good campaigner.
“He is establishing relationships with local politicians,” said Stewart Cumbo, a Chesapeake Beach town councilman. “Citizens are able to tell him their needs. I think it’s great. Makes it very personal, which is important. It shows he’s a politician that cares because he is taking the time.”
Parson-McBean was also impressed with Duncan’s campaigning in her Western Maryland county, and she thinks his work will pay off. “Everywhere I go and I talk about him (Duncan), people are like, who?” she said. But she said when she touts Duncan’s record, they all want to meet him. “People will know him as well as they know Martin O’Malley in this area.”