O’Malley’s March

Posted February 28, 2003 at 6:13pm

Editor’s note: Since its inception in late November, Down on the Farm has focused on the political dynamics and rising stars in individual states. And that will continue to be the central idea behind this weekly column.

But once in a while, events that affect the political farm teams in various states are noteworthy but not worth dedicating entire columns to. So occasionally, we will chronicle those developments rather than profile a single state. What follows is one of those roundups.

[IMGCAP(1)] In Baltimore, where telegenic 40-year-old Mayor Martin O’Malley (D) is touted as a potential candidate for governor in 2006 — or even vice president in 2004 — they’ve got a very strange electoral calendar.

Unless the state Legislature acts in the next five weeks, Baltimore will hold its primaries for mayor and other city offices this September — 14 months before the general election.

The confusion stems from politically charged legislative wrangling.

Traditionally, Baltimore has chosen its mayors in odd-numbered years —

O’Malley was elected in November 1999, after winning the Democratic primary that September. But in a referendum that year, city voters decided to hold their municipal elections in the presidential year — to boost voter turnout and save money. So O’Malley was elected to a five-year term.

The problem was, Baltimore needed the Legislature and governor to ratify the change and set a new election day. Two years ago, the Legislature changed the general election date but could not agree on a new primary date.

In presidential years, Maryland holds its primaries in March. But government watchdog organizations argued that holding the city primary then would favor incumbents and wouldn’t give challengers

sufficient opportunity to campaign. They have lobbied for a September 2004 city primary.

State election officials, however, believe a September mayoral primary would create logistical problems and cost the cash-strapped city at least $500,000. So, because Democratic primaries are usually the decisive elections in the heavily Democratic city, Baltimore faces the prospect of possibly having a lame-duck mayor — and City Council — for 14 months, if the current primary date is not changed.

For now, O’Malley is considered the favorite for re-election — especially if the primary date remains this September. But in a majority-black city, there is always some risk for a white politician — even one like O’Malley, who fronts an Irish rock band in muscle T-shirts, has a wife with movie-star looks and married into a Baltimore political dynasty. O’Malley’s relationship with certain black leaders has slowly frayed. But unless the black community can unify behind one highly regarded Democratic primary challenger — Rep. Elijah Cummings and state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the first black official to endorse O’Malley in 1999, are occasionally mentioned — then chances are O’Malley will prevail again. And be free to stoke his political ambitions.

Meanwhile, whenever the next municipal elections take place in Baltimore, voters will be choosing a smaller City Council. Last year, they voted to reduce the council from 18 to 14. Baltimore now elects three Council members from six districts; under a redistricting plan submitted to the council by O’Malley, the city would have 14 single-member districts.

Like so much else in Charm City, the redistricting process is fraught with racial implications — and potential peril for O’Malley.

Nueva York, Nueva York. Speaking of redistricting, the New York City Redistricting Commission just put the finishing touches on a redistricting plan for the City Council, which must be approved by the Justice Department before the 2005 city elections.

According to The Associated Press, the proposed map creates 23 council districts where Latinos, Asians and blacks make up more than 50 percent of the population. Twelve districts would have Hispanic majorities, 11 would be majority-black, and 18 would have white majorities. Ten of the 51 council districts would have no ethnic or racial majority.

The current council boundaries have 10 majority-Hispanic districts, 11 black, two Asian, and 28 with a majority or plurality of white residents.

The Asian American Legal Defense Fund and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund have complained that the new district lines will dilute their voting power.

The Fragile Balance Tips. In New Jersey, where the state Senate is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) has tipped the balance of power — at least temporarily — by nominating state Sen. John Matheussen (R) to be CEO of the Delaware River Port Authority.

Matheussen’s departure from the Senate will temporarily give Democrats a 20-19 advantage. But Republicans will be able to name an interim successor later in the year. Matheussen has represented a Democratic-leaning district outside of Philadelphia, however, meaning the race to replace him is likely to be competitive.

Matheussen has sought to move up the political ladder before: He took 19 percent of the vote in last year’s GOP primary for Senate, which was won by businessman Doug Forrester. Despite his appointment to the $175,000-a-year Port Authority post, Matheussen said he could try for higher office again.

“I’m 50 years old,” he told the PoliticsNJ.com Web site, “and that’s too young to rule anything out.”

Looking Out for No. 2. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is expected to select a new lieutenant governor any day now.

The current lieutenant governor, Frank Brogan (R), is resigning this week to become president of Florida Atlantic University.

The leading contenders, according to several sources and media accounts, are all Republicans: state House Minority Whip Gaston Cantens, Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney, Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood, former state Senate President Toni Jennings and Clermont businesswoman Julia Johnson.

Several are considered future candidates for higher office — especially Delaney, who is term-limited and cannot seek re-election this spring. He is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for House, Senate or governor.

Some political insiders have suggested that Bush would like to appoint a woman or minority to the post. Cantens is Hispanic; Johnson is black.