Baltimore's O'Malley Triumphs In Primary

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2003; Page B03

BALTIMORE, Sept. 9 -- Popular incumbent Martin O'Malley coasted to victory tonight in the city's Democratic mayoral primary, overwhelming a field of little-known challengers.

With 98 percent of the city's precincts reporting, O'Malley had about two-thirds of the vote, compared with not quite a third for the closest of his four opponents, Andrey Bundley, a high school principal and first-time candidate.

In heavily Democratic Baltimore, victory in the party primary is traditionally tantamount to winning the general election.

But O'Malley has a long wait before he is formally reelected. Because of a one-time legislative quirk, the general election will not take place for 14 months.

The O'Malley camp celebrated just the same last night. It mounted a spirited gathering -- complete with a four-foot-high shamrock ice sculpture -- in a renovated industrial building in southwest Baltimore, symbolizing what O'Malley touts as the city's rebirth.

"Tonight, thanks to the people of Baltimore, we celebrate the affirmation of a shared cause," he said. "Tomorrow, we will continue our shared and relentless struggle knowing that the road ahead will require more sweat and more sacrifice."

Early in the day, election officials were predicting that voter turnout would approach historic lows. But the numbers surged by early evening. By the time polls closed, it had reached 33 percent of registered Democrats, close to a typical primary turnout.

Early in the summer, several prominent Baltimore politicians, including state Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D), contemplated challenging O'Malley, whose tough-talking persona and aggressive reform of city departments have made him a star among U.S. mayors.

But by the August filing deadline, all major prospective challengers had backed away from the race.

Nonetheless, O'Malley, viewed by many in Maryland as a likely gubernatorial candidate in 2006, campaigned aggressively through the summer, blanketing the city with campaign signs and airing TV ads trumpeting reductions in the city's crime rate, which remains among the highest nationally.

During his time in office, serious crime in Baltimore has dropped by 26 percent, the biggest drop for that period of any large U.S. city, according to FBI statistics. But the city's rate of violent crime remains second only to Detroit's.

Bundley, who did not return several calls seeking comment, was a long shot from the start. He raised just $23,000, compared with the mayor's $2.8 million, sharply limiting his ability to produce television spots. But he made a stronger showing than many had expected, aggressively questioning O'Malley at candidates forums.

In the end, he couldn't make a dent in the popularity of O'Malley, whose approval ratings have been high throughout his four years in office. In a poll in the spring, 69 percent of voters said they approved of the 40-year-old mayor's performance. In today's voting, O'Malley had more than 57,000 votes and Bundley slightly more than 28,000 with 98 percent of precincts reporting.

O'Malley, who is white and grew up in Rockville, has done almost as well among black voters as among white ones, and in a city that is 65 percent black, he has established good rapport with African American leaders and residents.

His temper, which has become legendary even by the rough-and-tumble standards of Baltimore politics, has gotten him in some trouble, as in 2001, when he criticized Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy (D) in a profanity-laced tirade. He appeared to tone it down this summer, and he and Jessamy have publicly buried their differences.

In addition to the office of mayor, City Council seats -- including the City Council president -- were on the ballot today, along with the city comptroller's office.

Normally, the general election follows the primary by six weeks. But Baltimore voters decided in a referendum to align their general election with the U.S. presidential race. The primary date, however, is set by the General Assembly, which declined to make the switch.

It sets up the possibility that City Council members, if not O'Malley, could be voted out of office and still hold their position for 14 more months. The gap has raised some concerns about accountability among officials who lose but continue to serve.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company