When Mayor Martin O'Malley begins a six-day tour of Israel, his official mission will be to buttress Baltimore's homeland security efforts with lessons from a nation well-versed in dealing with political violence.
But political observers say O'Malley's trip also serves an unofficial purpose: to bolster his support among Baltimore-area Jewish voters who are being courted by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan - a bloc that strongly supported Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2002.
Duncan and O'Malley are presumed rivals for the state Democratic Party's nomination to challenge Ehrlich in the 2006 election. The county executive has been building Baltimore contacts for more than a year and traveled to Israel with the Baltimore Jewish Council in May, a move seen by many as a way to trump O'Malley, who had never made the trip.
The Jewish organization frequently sponsors trips to Israel and pays for public dignitaries such as Ehrlich, Duncan and O'Malley, who is traveling with his wife, to expose them to the Israeli business and political climate. O'Malley's tour is scheduled to begin today.
"Going to Israel is an obligatory symbolic gesture" for all politicians, said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor. The Jewish vote "is one piece of a larger mosaic that the winning candidate will have to put together."
Maryland's Jewish community, located mostly in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs, accounts for about 4 percent of the state's population, according to census statistics.
But if a Duncan-O'Malley Democratic primary is close, Jewish voters - who are predominantly registered as Democrats - would be a critical organizing and fund-raising factor, observers said.
"The Jewish community votes. In the Baltimore area, the turnout rate is over 80 percent," said Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "The Jewish community also tends to contribute money to those it supports."
That means O'Malley must maintain what many say is strong support among Baltimore's Jewish voters. Although the primary is 21 months away, the mayor will also try to gather Jewish support in Duncan's back yard, something he has yet to do.
"As 2006 approaches, we'll be dedicating more time to those sorts of things," O'Malley said of traveling to the Washington area, where he lunched Wednesday with Israel's U.S. ambassador.
"The county executive has had an opportunity to be in campaign mode for a longer period of time than I have," he said.
Still, O'Malley said of his trip to Israel, which will include examining security at the port cities of Haifa and Ashkelon, "I'm going to learn about homeland security, not to score political points."
O'Malley's vocal advocacy for more federal homeland security support for cities has garnered a national reputation that landed him two speaking roles on the issue for Sen. John Kerry's failed presidential campaign.
Support for Ehrlich
Republicans, however, contend that the mayor is trying to play political catch-up after not traveling to Israel sooner.
"The bottom line is that O'Malley is the last one on the bus," said Deborah Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party.
"Unlike O'Malley, who turned down three previous invitations from the Baltimore Jewish Council to go to Israel, Governor Ehrlich has not viewed the Jewish community as a last-minute tool to gain statewide office."
Ehrlich, whose strong Jewish support in the 2002 election surprised pundits, has been to Israel three times.
Duncan has also traveled to Israel three times.
Ehrlich and Duncan traveled there once as part of the annual mission organized and paid for by the Baltimore Jewish Council.
O'Malley's trip is not one of the council's annual missions but was arranged at the mayor's urging in the spring, Abramson said.
The Baltimore Jewish Council is an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which is paying the $11,000 for the O'Malleys to take the trip through grants from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The city is picking up the $3,300-per- person travel tab for the mayor's delegation, which includes two Cabinet members, City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and David Engel, who leads Baltimore's police intelligence unit.
In Israel, O'Malley will meet with Jews and Palestinians to get an understanding of issues, and with homeland security experts. The mayor will travel with his wife, Katie Curran O'Malley.
Abramson said O'Malley "has never turned down an invitation." He said the mayor has had an open-ended invitation since he was elected in 1999 and that the mayor said he would go when his schedule - including a primary and general election over two years - opened up.
O'Malley said that one of the most frequently asked questions he gets has been, "When are you going to Israel?"
"I don't often make the time to travel," said O'Malley, who last year traveled to Italy on official business and to Ireland for vacation. "Governors tend to be able to travel more than mayors do.
"Every mayor of big American cities needs to be sensitive and knowledgeable to the cultures that make up their cities," the mayor said.
He said his relations with Jewish voters throughout Maryland are strong. And political observers said Jewish voters will not vote for candidates based solely on how many trips to Israel they take.
"Taking a trip to Israel gets about five votes," said Melvin A. Steinberg, a former Maryland lieutenant governor. "Taking the trip is a PR [public relations] thing. You get an ethnic vote by outreach and by being involved in the community."
Outreach is just what Duncan has done in Baltimore for more than a year. In November 2003, he addressed the Baltimore Jewish Council before taking a tour of Northwest Baltimore's Jewish neighborhoods. He made those same rounds again in September.
In May, he traveled to Israel with Abramson's group and spoke of his trip last month to the board of the council's umbrella group, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. In November, he also attended the 71st anniversary banquet of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore and took out a full-page advertisement in its program featuring a message, his photograph and his Web site address.
Political observers said Duncan's outreach is necessary because he has poor name recognition in Baltimore, and a poll last January showed that O'Malley would handily defeat him in a primary.
"Baltimoreans have voted for O'Malley twice," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who left for Israel last week and will join the mayor this week. "Politically, the burden is on the newcomer to say, 'I can do a better job than this person you already know.'"
That's just what Duncan has been doing in Baltimore by pointing out his Jewish partnerships in Montgomery County, where he has been executive for three terms.
"If you're going to run for governor, you have to be known around the state," Duncan said. "I'm proud of the friendships and partnerships that I've forged through the state and in Baltimore as well."
Duncan advisers said the executive over the past five years has directed $2.7 million in county money to Montgomery Jewish groups for security needs.
Ronald Halber, executive director for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said Duncan has "a record to stand on" with the Jewish community and that O'Malley has not yet "had any extensive contacts" with his group. He also praised Ehrlich for his support.
"But," Halber said, "[Ehrlich and O'Malley are] going to have to invest time and money to reach out to the Jewish community here."
Praise for O'Malley
Abramson had equally high praise for O'Malley's work with the Baltimore Jewish community. He said all Jewish facilities in the city were protected at the mayor's direction within an hour after the Sept. 11 attacks. Abramson also praised Ehrlich for state funds for security needs.
"We're working with the mayor on obtaining homeland security funds for Jewish organizations," including a network of security cameras in Park Heights, Abramson said.
O'Malley said he expects to learn more tips in Israel about how best to protect the entire city.
Steinberg said the Israel trip matters less than what O'Malley plans to do to apply those lessons when he returns.
"Action speaks," Steinberg said. "Neither [O'Malley nor Duncan] can take Jewish voters for granted. O'Malley has to go to Montgomery County. He can't win with just Baltimore."