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'Landslide Johnny' shows that incumbent has edge


Bewildered and chastened, the man they were already calling "Landslide Johnny" spoke to his constituents on television as if he had lost.

In a sense, he had.

Backed by big money and the accretions of power building up automatically for incumbents, state Sen. John A. Pica, D-Baltimore, had won his Democratic Party primary last Tuesday by only 44 votes. The outcome was not known until several

hundred absentee votes were counted.

have received a message," Mr. Pica said. "I'm going to mold a different personality and character. I have to admit I learned a lot about myself and what the voters want in the last two days."

And, he added, "Incumbency was not the asset I thought it would be."

Others offered a different analysis: Incumbency and its assets were all that saved him.

A veteran Baltimore elections official said legislative incumbents have a 3,000-vote advantage over any opponent before the first baby is kissed. From that perspective, Mr.

Pica's 44-vote victory meant that Martin O'Malley had taken away 2,966 votes of the 3,000-vote advantage.

"I'm trying not to lash myself wondering what would have happened if we had found another day to campaign," the challenger said Friday.

The power of incumbency taken on by Mr. O'Malley and others last week is fed by lobbyist-directed, corporate campaign contributions; by state scholarships to distribute; by powerful friends; by the power to influence appointments to boards and commissions; by small favors, such as the conferring of notary public seals; and by Annapolis offices well-equipped and well-staffed at taxpayer expense.

All of these advantages were hit by electoral lightning last Tuesday in 14 of Maryland's legislative races. Six state senators and eight members of the House of Delegates lost. But the advantages of incumbency were neutralized by the abortion issue -- and, perhaps, by a growing displeasure with professional officeholders.

Overall, though, incumbency prevailed and prevailed early, before the voters had a chance to examine any senator's or delegate's record.

Ten of the Senate's 47 members had no opposition at all, and another 10 had less-than-threatening challengers. Common Cause of Maryland and other critics of the electoral system say incumbency's first impact is to discourage challengers, who feel they cannot overcome a sitting legislator's money and organized support.

The 43rd District race between Mr. Pica and Mr. O'Malley -- replete with sideshows involving major state figures -- helps to show why incumbents are so strong.

* Mr. Pica -- who will run against Republican James Brewster in November -- drew more campaign money from political action committees than his opponent raised overall. PACs sent Mr. Pica at least $32,000. PACs generally favor incumbents whose voting they can predict. They give little to unknowns. Of the $30,000 Mr. O'Malley raised, none was from PACs as of the last reporting date.

*The Pica campaign received $1,500 from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and $7,000 from Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Both men campaigned for the 43rd District senator or endorsed him in campaign literature.

*Mr. Pica's advantage in campaign money helped him field a large team on election day: 300 to 400 poll workers. Mr. O'Malley says he had far fewer workers.

*Mr. O'Malley entered the race after important alliances had been struck between Mr. Pica and the district's three delegates. Most of the other elected officials in the district sided with Mr. Pica as well.

Mr. O'Malley made the race close with hustle, experience in political organizing and a hard-hitting attack against Mr. Pica's record of voting -- or non-voting, as Mr. O'Malley put it. He charged that the incumbent missed more votes than all but one city senator.

During the final 10 days of the election, at a cost of about $3,000, Mr. O'Malley sent postcards to 12,000 households in the district.

What would happen to you if you didn't show up for work, the voter was asked on one side of the card. On the other, the voter was told thattaxpayers had paid Mr. Pica $178,000 plus expenses over eight years and were rewarded by one of the worst voting records in the Senate.

"I think I was unfairly criticized on attendance," Mr. Pica said. "But that's an issue that is difficult" to explain. "Mr. O'Malley claimed I missed votes. But all of us do that."

And he put out his own leaflet near the end of the campaign: It urged voters not to be "misled by the accusations of Martin O'Malley. The truth is John Pica has an excellent record of attendance in the Senate." Mr. O'Malley had not charged the senator with poor attendance, but with failing to vote. The defense of Mr. Pica was attributed to Governor Schaefer and Mayor Schmoke.

Based in part on assessments that Mr. Pica was a less energetic advocate of the city than he should have been, the senator failed to get editorial endorsements -- which he had received in previous years -- from The Sun and The Evening Sun, which saw "unmistakable signs of incumbent fatigue."

And Mr. O'Malley had an important ally, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., whose family had once controlled Northeast Baltimore politics. During the campaign, Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Curran's daughter, Katie, were married.

And while Mr. Curran's old organization stayed with Mr. Pica, the attorney general knocked on doors, urged his friends to turn out on primary day and made it clear he thought the district needed a new senator.

Mr. Pica countered with the support of Governor Schaefer, whose own interests were served by helping a threatened senator.

If Mr. Schaefer wants to succeed over the next four years in Annapolis, he needs allies such as Mr. Pica in the Senate.

The governor's involvement was also based on antagonisms.

Mr. Schaefer and Attorney General Curran have been at odds since 1987 over several policy issues.

On Election Day, the two men found themselves temporarily competing as poll workers outside the Reformation Lutheran Church off Loch Raven Boulevard. Mr. Schaefer's campaign aides say he was simply out looking in on various campaigns -- and not really campaigning.

His support for Mr. Pica was clear, however.

Senator Pica says he never thought he was in trouble -- a telling concession, perhaps, and an advantage for the challenger, who may have caught the incumbent off-guard.

But, with the primary results before him, he said, "There was certainly a recognizable amount of anti-incumbent vote. It's likely there were some who were tired of John Pica."

Mr. O'Malley's campaign seems to have confirmed that conclusion. "One thing I hope we've proved is that everybody's vulnerable. If you have the guts to take it to the people, they listen," the challenger said.

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