The gathering of the Democratic Leadership Council at the Omni Hotel yesterday came off as something of a political version of "Star Search." That television show was supposed to find the entertainment stars of the future; the DLC's "national conversation" showcases the political leaders of tomorrow.
"I'm sure there's a future president in this room," said Al From, president of the DLC. "I just don't know who it is."
From's political handicapping acumen is held in some esteem as early on he backed Bill Clinton - one of the first to join From's organization, which seeks to keep the Democratic Party afloat in the deep waters of the mainstream.
He put the spotlight yesterday on another early DLC believer, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who delivered the keynote address of the two-day meeting of more than 150 state and local officials from across the country.
The theme of the conference, which closes with an address from Vice President Al Gore today, is the new economy. Townsend spoke of Maryland's efforts to use technology in government and spur its growth in the economy.
"I've asked a lot of high-tech leaders what they need to compete and win," she said. "Not one of them has ever said to me, 'Cut my taxes and stay out of my way.' Not one.
"They want a government that understands how their work is reshaping our economy ... that can keep up with their light-speed pace."
Townsend, who first worked with From in 1988, was clearly a star to this group, taking time after her speech to pose for pictures with many of them, to patiently wait through television interviews.
Starring role for O'Malley
But a challenger on the charisma front was Mayor Martin O'Malley. He has attended DLC meetings before, but this time was given a co-starring role by From, who was clearly curious about the city's new mayor.
O'Malley gave a welcoming address that opened the gathering and later chaired a session on using technology in government.
"Democrats have had a tendency to cling to ideas that propped up the old economy," he said in his first address. "That lost jobs. The Republican philosophy of survival of the fittest benefited only the few. The third way is a better way. We need to support an economy that extends opportunity."
Showing off 'Digital Harbor'
O'Malley spoke of Baltimore's new ability to attract high-tech businesses to redeveloped areas that once housed the industries of the past, showing slides of the various projects in the "Digital Harbor."
In the session he led, O'Malley had his coat off, tie loosened, and sleeves rolled up as he praised Baltimore's Citistat program, which uses computers to track problems across geographic and bureaucratic jurisdictions, putting up PowerPoint slides that showed trash service complaints in a particular city neighborhood.
'The map doesn't lie'
He demonstrated that the computer rendering could go from the entire city down to an individual block. "The great thing about the map is that it doesn't know anything about the neighborhood, what the income level of the residents are, what their political influence is," O'Malley said. "The map doesn't lie, and it lets us know where the problems are so we can deploy our resources."
From was impressed. "He's clearly got something," he said.
There was little talk of lofty ideals or political programs at this gathering.
Instead, the sessions were about designing responsive phone systems and effectively deploying police and making contacts across jurisdictional lines.
"These are people who actually have to govern," From said.
"We're where the rubber meets the road," said Donald T. Cunningham, mayor of Bethlehem, Pa.
Cunningham and O'Malley met at a previous DLC gathering and hit it off. They are the same age - 37 - and both came up from city councils. "He's part of a whole new generation of Democratic mayors who were forced by changing circumstances in the federal government to become far more entrepreneurial," O'Malley said of Cunningham.
Besides that, both play guitar in bands.
Last night, many of those at the DLC meeting were heading to a crab feast and then some were expected to adjourn to an Irish bar where the mayor's band, O'Malley's March, was playing. Cunningham was expected to join O'Malley on stage.