Throughout most of his first term, Mayor Martin O'Malley relied on the leadership of Baltimore's political giants in the General Assembly to ensure the success of the city's agenda in Annapolis.
But with the deaths of former Sen. Clarence W. Blount and Del. Howard P. Rawlings and the 2002 election defeat of Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, O'Malley is vowing to shoulder that responsibility himself when the 90-day legislative session opens tomorrow.
It's a move that will bring him more to the forefront on the state's political scene at a time when he is preparing for a possible run for governor.
"I'm going to be spending a lot more time down there," O'Malley said. "I need to make up for the loss of their leadership."
The Democratic mayor is seeking to preserve funding for city programs in the face of a $736 million state budget shortfall and a Republican governor wary of the mayor's aspirations.
O'Malley also has to shepherd changes to Baltimore's election law that would eliminate an embarrassing 14-month lag between the city's primary and general elections. Changes to that law could determine whether he would have the right to run for governor without leaving City Hall. City lawmakers already have introduced bills that offer two different solutions to the problem.
As chairmen of the budget committees in the House of Delegates and the Senate, Rawlings and Hoffman protected city programs and leveraged their power to guard other parts of the mayor's agenda. Blount, majority leader in the Senate for almost two decades, also lobbied forcefully for the city even in his retirement and until his death just over a year ago.
In addition to the loss of political leaders, Baltimore also is still adjusting to the 2002 redistricting plan that reduced the number of city representatives in Annapolis by four in the Senate and 11 in the House.
O'Malley's "got to have a greater presence in Annapolis to plead the city's case," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
The mayor's increased presence in Annapolis also has personal, political implications, Norris said.
O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan have voiced interest in the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006. But both are lagging behind Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in name recognition statewide, according a recent Sun poll.
The Maryland Poll, conducted last week, showed 22 percent of the voters tested did not recognize O'Malley's name and 44 percent did not know Duncan. Even so, the mayor still would find himself in a virtual dead heat with Ehrlich, if a gubernatorial election were held today, according to the poll.
"Substantively, [O'Malley] needs to be there to advance the interest of the city with the General Assembly," Norris said. "Symbolically, he needs to be there because he needs to be seen being there. He needs to be seen by the people of the state."
Norris said he expects Duncan also will capitalize on the wide media exposure that the legislative session generates. And outside of election years, media exposure is never higher for politicians than during the legislative session, when virtually all of the state's news organizations and elected officials converge on Annapolis.
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he wants to see the mayor focus on the substantive issues - for the city and other jurisdictions in Maryland, not just politics.
"He needs to continue to rally the General Assembly on the city's behalf ... and because he is continually campaigning for statewide office constantly, he needs to appreciate the needs of the rest of Maryland," Miller said. But "if he's going to come down here and play politics, he needs to stay in Baltimore."
Miller said he hopes the mayor will help advocate for new revenue sources. Unless the state devises a plan to increase revenues - whether through taxes or legalizing gambling - Marylanders could see further cuts to already hard-hit public services, including schools.
Ehrlich has threatened to slash education aid if the assembly fails to pass legislation legalizing slot machine gambling. That would most hurt such jurisdictions as Baltimore City, Prince George's County and less wealthy jurisdictions that depend on additional state resources.
"I think that people who care about children, people who care about drug treatment, people who care about schools, need to care about revenues," Miller said. "Hopefully, [O'Malley] can help us generate revenues with slot machines at limited locations."
That won't be easy.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch has reservations about using slots to resolve the state's budget woes. He prefers a 1-cent increase in the state sales tax rate - from 5 percent to 6 percent - to generate money for education, but Ehrlich has ruled out broad-based tax increases.
Although such debates are statewide issues, they couldn't be more important to O'Malley. His second term in office begins later this year and he would suffer a tremendous setback if he loses any more state aid.
In October, the O'Malley administration sent the state a wish list that seeks $30 million over three years for drug treatment, $10.5 million over three years for lead paint abatement and $5 million over three years for HIV/AIDS prevention programs, among other proposals.
In addition, the city is relying on increased dollars for schools, which would largely come through the Thornton Plan, an education initiative that would add $1.3 billion yearly in spending for public schools.
These were the kinds of programs that Rawlings and Hoffman drafted or at least guarded in the budget process. But with Hoffman no longer in the legislature and Rawlings' death in November, a new onus rests on the shoulders of the city's top leader to bring home the desired state assistance.
Even so, O'Malley remains optimistic.
"We've lost Barbara Hoffman. We've lost Clarence Blount. We've lost Peter Rawlings," O'Malley told about 70 Baltimore business leaders at a fund-raiser Thursday. "We're fighting a very, very tough fight, but we're doing it."