A symphony of support, or just a rich soloist?

MONTGOMERY County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's recent expressions of concern for the welfare of Baltimore - its urgent and continuing need for the leadership of Mayor Martin O'Malley - is touching. It would be even more heart-warming if it were sincere. It's not totally disingenuous, though, because it's so transparent.

Mr. Duncan wants to be governor. Mr. O'Malley is in his way. The mayor of Baltimore has a lot more name recognition, so Mr. Duncan needs to find ways to project himself on the statewide screen. To that end, he's made trips to the Baltimore region, trying to pick off some big-name support, hoping for media coverage and getting both. It's impressive.


Mr. Duncan will arrive in the next few days for a fund-raiser thrown by Calman J. "Buddy" Zamoiski Jr., a Baltimore businessman who knows Mr. Duncan via the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is about to inaugurate a new concert hall in Montgomery.

Mr. Zamoiski's gesture goes beyond a thank-you note to an obliging pol. He, too, says Mayor O'Malley should stay in Baltimore. And he's offering Mr. Duncan two things, at least, that office-seekers must have: money and the support of an important opinion leader. Early money, they say, is like yeast: It raises more money and makes it possible to do the campaigning that makes you credible. Mr. Zamoiski will almost certainly bring check-writing friends to the Duncan event.


And he's not the only significant political or corporate player to weigh in. The Orioles' principal owner, Peter G. Angelos, has raised a few dollars for Mr. Duncan, too.

The O'Malley camp will do its best to discount this Duncan buzz. At the same time, it should be taking it with utmost seriousness.

Within Democratic Party circles, Mr. O'Malley is seen as the party's best hope for defeating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Even people who admire Mr. Duncan observe with some finality that Mr. O'Malley is a political rock star. They're impressed with the swoon factor. Image may be everything. Mr. O'Malley's got so much image it's almost a disadvantage. People question his maturity, his tendency to pop off. But they also know that popping off can help: Mr. Ehrlich and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer come to mind.

In the old days, clubhouse leaders were gatekeepers. They decided who was worthy to represent the party, who had waited his (seldom her) turn - who could win. There are few such bosses anymore.

The closest thing might be the check writers, the corporate bankrollers who can help a candidate pile up the huge account balances needed to buy TV time. They're not good as bosses, though, because they don't feel entirely comfortable in the role, don't have the instincts and can't compete with rock celebrities who don't recognize gatekeepers.

But they'll have some clout because their dollars will be of critical importance to Democrats as 2006 approaches. If Mr. Zamoiski and Mr. Angelos want a Democratic governor, they'll be asked to support Mr. O'Malley or Mr. Duncan in the party primary and the winner in the general election.

Mr. Ehrlich probably won't have a primary opponent, and he will almost certainly have plenty of cash. Richard E. Hug, a very successful fund-raiser who is now a member of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents, will perform his magic once again, no doubt.

Of course, it's not just the high-rollers that matter in the fund-raising world. Mr. Duncan also is finding supporters who don't own baseball teams or spend their lives supporting symphony orchestras.


So, he's having a bit of fun now twitting the mayor, using the mayor's own candid assessment of Baltimore's problems as proof of how desperately the city needs another O'Malley term. If you're on the O'Malley team, you can say, "See, Doug Duncan agrees that the problems are severe and that Martin's a strong mayor. He'll be an even stronger governor and even more able to help the city."

The mayor can say the Duncan foray is just a game within the bigger game. It's not on the voters' radar screen. He also knows this: Doug Duncan's determined to be a player, and there are important people out there who want to help him.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.