On a West Baltimore basketball court freshly swept of glass and trash, top city and state Democrats gathered, hoping for a safer city and maybe, just maybe, a political nod.
They left with a pledge from Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Mayor Martin O'Malley that police and probation agents will keep better tabs on Baltimore's violent youth.
"Whenever she makes substantive commitments that improve the lives of people in the city of Baltimore, she can always count on me standing beside her," O'Malley said. "But I can't wave pompoms where there's no substance to back it up."
Political rivals since O'Malley publicly toyed with challenging Townsend in the primary, the lieutenant governor and mayor made a rare joint public appearance Friday to announce Operation Safe Kids, a program to improve supervision of the city's young, violent offenders.
With the primary days away and television cameras assembled, it seemed to some in the crowd like the perfect time for a thumbs-up from O'Malley.
Townsend had come to town, after all, offering at least 10 state probation agents to help make sure offenders obey court-ordered curfews and other terms of their release. Less than a week earlier, at a rally for the Baltimore Believe anti-drug program, she had promised to pour an extra $30 million into city drug treatment programs if she becomes governor.
Del. Ruth M. Kirk had her fingers crossed for an endorsement before Friday's event began, as city work crews hurriedly tidied up the basketball court at the Harlem Park Recreation Center. "It would be nice," she said. "I would love to see him do it."
In an interview beforehand, O'Malley noted that as a loyal Democrat, he has "always said I'll support the nominee." But he indicated that he wouldn't stump for Townsend, or even endorse her by name, until he is sure she is committed to helping the city. Recent largesse aside, O'Malley said he is still not convinced.
"I was glad to stand with her at the Believe Day rally where she made a commitment to increase by $30 million drug treatment money in the city of Baltimore. And then today, she's making this commitment," he said. "Hopefully that's a pattern you'll see. And when it's up to a critical mass of commitment, then I can pick up my pompoms."
Towsend said she was unfazed by the absent endorsement. "That will come soon enough," she said.
Townsend said she and the mayor have always had a good working relationship, even when their political rapport was prickly.
"I think fundamentally we have a commitment to the city and to reducing crime," she said. "Even in the tough times ... we worked together on drug treatment. And he'd ask me to come to work with him on a number of initiatives. I just think that's important. Our concern for the city overrides everything else."
Some political observers see a smart strategy in O'Malley playing hard to get, since he might be able to milk more state aid the longer he withholds his endorsement.
But some of Townsend's supporters contend that the city would fare worse under a GOP governor and that O'Malley should give his fellow Democrat all the help he can in what is expected to be a tight race against Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the general election.
"When you think about what the alternative is, come on," Councilman Kwame Osayaba Abayomi said. "I'd love to see us united as a party."
Not everyone in the crowd was pining away for O'Malley's nod.
"I don't worry about that," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings. "She's going to win. She doesn't need his endorsement."
State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden said O'Malley's formal backing means less than the cooperation he saw before him on the basketball court, as Townsend and mayor unveiled their plan.
"Saying you're supporting somebody is fine, but actually executing cooperation around such a very important area is really more important than saying, 'I'm for you,' " he said.
Cooperation between Townsend, mayor, but endorsement up in air
O'Malley hasn't indicated who he'll back for governor
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