O'Malley's overwhelming victory hints at statewide potential
But some say the mayor should have defeated principal by larger margin

By Tom Pelton and Ivan Penn
Sun Staff

September 10, 2003

Fifteen months ago, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley declared that he would remain focused on the challenges of City Hall and not run for governor because "there is no tougher fight, and no more noble cause, than the turnaround of a great American city."

O'Malley's overwhelming victory in yesterday's Democratic primary practically guarantees him a second term as mayor. But the decisiveness of the victory - capturing at least 66 percent of the vote, the largest margin in 20 years - leads some political observers to believe that he will see more tempting possibilities than sticking around until 2008 to finish his second term.

Many local Democrats look to O'Malley's rock-star charisma as the vehicle they can ride to recapture the governor's mansion from the Republicans in 2006.

"I think his future is limitless. I think Martin is one of the brightest stars in the Democratic Party," said C. Vernon Gray, a Morgan State University political science professor and former Howard County Council member. "He has what some people call it. He's able to generate excitement. And he really understands politics."

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said O'Malley's wide margin of victory last night hints at the mayor's potential power statewide.

"A big win absolutely sends a statement to the state party: He's the next guy, the leader of the Democratic Party as the next state elections come up," Mitchell said.

Others weren't so impressed with the primary's results, saying that O'Malley should have won by an even larger margin because his main challenger, Andrey Bundley, a high school principal, had no political experience, money or name recognition. Nevertheless, Bundley garnered about 32 percent of the vote - a number that exceeded the expectations of some observers.

"This is a report card on how well he's done as mayor. It is not a report card on how well he'd do as governor," said John M. Kane, chairman of the state Republican Party. "If he doesn't get 85 percent of the vote in this primary, I think he's got a problem. He's not up against a top-tier candidate."

Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, said that he expected Bundley to draw only 20 percent to 25 percent of the vote because of his lack of campaign funds and experience.

Bundley's message of providing more money for education and reining in an excessive police force resonated with many of the city's black voters, and he is likely to be seen as a credible candidate if he runs for mayor again in four years, Crenson said.

"More than 30 percent against an incumbent as popular as the mayor is pretty respectable," Crenson said. "My rule of thumb was that if he got more than 30 percent, he would do some political damage to O'Malley's quest for higher office. You had a candidate who was completely new to Baltimore City politics."

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden said Bundley's call for more emphasis on public education was sorely needed in the Democratic Party.

"He did an outstanding job for a person who is a novice in politics," said McFadden, the Senate majority leader. "He is an articulate young man, he can inspire young people and he touched a nerve that many politicians have not been able to touch. He has a large following."

Little known as a councilman four years ago, O'Malley, 40, a former city prosecutor and Irish rock singer from the Washington suburbs, showed his administrative style by pumping millions of dollars into the city Police Department, funneling an unprecedented amount of work to minority contracting firms, and instituting a computerized system for more efficiently analyzing and directing city services.

His political presence also extended beyond the city boundaries: After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, O'Malley stepped into the homeland security arena, fighting for federal money and promising that Baltimore would be at the forefront of the battle against terrorism. He testified before the U.S. Senate and called for the creation of a federal program that would help Baltimore and hundreds of other cities boost security and preparedness.

Although many Democrats might challenge Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2006, many elected officials and others expect O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan to be among the chief contenders for the Democratic nomination. Those who know O'Malley say that he wants to move up to a higher executive position and that he has little interest in a legislative office, such as a U.S. Senate seat.

"We're fortunate to have at least two, if not more, candidates in Duncan and O'Malley," Isiah Leggett, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said of the next governor's race. "Both have let it be known that they would like to seek the governor's office at some point. I think either one would be formidable against Ehrlich."

A run for governor would be three years away. The first step for O'Malley will come Nov. 2, 2004, when he faces Republican challenger Elbert Henderson and perhaps some independents for re-election in a city in which Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10 to 1.

Last night, O'Malley said he won a majority of the city's predominantly African-American council districts, which his supporters said was encouraging because the mayor carried only about a third of the black vote in the 1999 primary.

"If the mayor received a clear majority of the African-American vote, I think that means that what he has been saying for years rings true, that there is more that unites us than divides us," said City Council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun