BALTIMORE – One of the first things Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan did after officially declaring himself a candidate for governor of Maryland was make his way to a small, crowded gymnasium attached to West Baltimore’s Union Baptist Church, one of the city’s oldest and most prominent African-American churches.
There, to a chorus of “amens” and cheers, he hammered away at a theme sure to become familiar in the coming campaign – good schools are the key to good jobs and safe streets, not slot machine gambling. He then clasped hands with the last black mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, who had come to endorse him.
For the straight – laced and button – down Duncan, county executive of the state’s richest county, the visit to one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods was a crucial one if he is to defeat Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley in the Democratic primary.
While O’Malley is hugely popular in the Baltimore region, where Duncan still remains largely unknown, the Baltimore mayor is perceived to have problems among African-American voters in his own city – problems Duncan hopes to exploit come the primary election next September.
“I don’t think there is a good relationship between Martin O’Malley and the black community at large,” said Michael V. Dobson, a former state delegate and son of Union Baptist’s pastor, The Rev. Vernon N. Dobson. “He has pockets of support, but by and large he hasn’t spoken to the issues of most importance, primarily public education and public safety. They were his campaign promises and he failed on both of them.”
“The black community is disappointed with the current (Baltimore) administration,” said Frank M. Conaway, the clerk of the Baltimore Circuit Court. “(O’Malley) has nowhere near the support he had when he was first elected.”
Even assuming that Conaway and the younger Dobson are correct and O’Malley faces dissatisfaction in the black community, Duncan still must mount a difficult and expensive campaign to gain support among Baltimore’s African American voters and in the Baltimore region in general.
Indeed, some strategists point out that Baltimore no longer plays the essential role it once did in a Democratic primary, and even less so in a general election campaign against the presumed Republican candidate, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
“The real battleground is the suburbs of Baltimore,” said Matthew Crenson, a professor of political science at John Hopkins University. “Ehrlich won the area in the general election and O’Malley is relatively strong in Baltimore County.”
A poll released Tuesday by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies testing the two Democratic contenders against Ehrlich showed O’Malley with a six point lead over Ehrlich, but Duncan running neck and neck against the governor. Among African American voters, however, both Duncan and O’Malley would poll about two-thirds of the vote in a contest with Ehrlich.
Others note that Duncan, coming from a wealthy county in the Washington suburbs, may not connect well with inner city Baltimore voters.
“We have pervasive problems that are being addressed that Doug has no experience with,” said Delegate Salima Siler Marriot, D- Baltimore, and Chair of the Baltimore City Delegation. “The question is, ‘What do you bring to the plate today?'”
But despite the odds, there are signs that Duncan is positioning himself well.
Schmoke said the issues Duncan raised are the central concerns of the community, noting that Duncan made good schools his priority. In his speech at Union Baptist, for example, Duncan said it is “just plain wrong” that students in Baltimore’s school system – which is overwhelmingly black – are not getting the same opportunities as students in the rest of the state.
“Education is the biggest challenge,” Schmoke said. “A great education and good jobs are all issues that resonate with the community.”
Duncan’s stance on slots also positions him on the opposite side of Ehrlich, who has made slots his major legislative priority, and O’Malley.
“Duncan has come out strongly against slots putting him in good stead with some of the black churches that are against slots, and everything that comes with them,” said Crenson.
Jonathan Epstein, O’Malley’s spokesman, said, the mayor “supports a limited number of slots only at race tracks to protect the 18,000 jobs in the horse racing industry and to keep the Preakness in Baltimore.”
Some of O’Malley’s problems in the black community go beyond policy issues to ones of style. Four years ago, O’Malley offended many in Baltimore’s African American middle class when he lost his temper over a decision by State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy to drop charges in a police corruption case. O’Malley, generally thought to be outspoken and charismatic, launched a profanity-laced tirade against Jessamy that many regarded as disrespectful to a black professional woman.
O’Malley later apologized for his language, but stuck by his criticisms. As the primary approaches, some wonder if the comments will come back to haunt him, with Jessamy supporting Duncan in the primary.
“Doug is an excellent candidate for governor,” Jessamy said in a statement passed through her secretary. “He has a thorough understanding of the issues affecting our communities.”
The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore, said he has not heard anyone talk about the Jessamy incident recently but said, “All people in public life make statements they wish they had not made.”
Reid’s support for O’Malley was crucial in his initial campaign for Mayor in 1999. He said he is supporting O’Malley again in the gubernatorial primary. However, Reid acknowledges that the support of Schmoke, who is Reid’s stepbrother, will help Duncan.
“Kurt Schmoke is one of the brightest people I know,” he said. “I think his endorsement will obviously help Duncan – if not in the city, it will help him in the state.” Although some say that will not be enough for Duncan to garner sufficient support within the city to defeat O’Malley. Reid said Duncan’s attack on O’Malley was also viewed as an attack on the city of Baltimore.