When Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan launched his gubernatorial campaign last week, one of his stops was an African-American church in Baltimore where he was cheered by Mayor Martin O'Malley's oldest and harshest critics.
For Duncan, who is relatively unknown in the city, winning over black voters on O'Malley's home turf is crucial if the three-term executive is to prevail in their battle for the 2006 Democratic nomination for governor. His visit to Union Baptist Church reveals his main strategy of aligning with O'Malley's political nemesis: the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.
While about 29 percent of Maryland's population is African-American, the impact of black voters is likely to be magnified in the primary because they are overwhelmingly registered Democrat. Most of the state's registered black voters live in Prince George's County and Baltimore, and Duncan and O'Malley are pursuing strategies to build support in those jurisdictions, including contemplating the choice of African-American running mates.
Today, Duncan's strategy of building a base among Baltimore's black majority is set to enlist the assistance of Kurt L. Schmoke, the city's first black elected mayor, who served from 1987 to 1999. Schmoke is scheduled to accompany Duncan on a citywide tour, including a stop at an Associated Black Charities meeting and visits to a Park Heights barbershop, a Charles Street beauty salon and an East Baltimore market.
Some political experts say that Schmoke's endorsement coupled with backing from ministers could help Duncan garner greater black support. Others say black voters are knowledgeable enough to see that the support of Schmoke and some pastors has more to do with their rocky history with O'Malley.
The Baltimore ministerial group has never thrown the support of its approximately 200 city churches to O'Malley. Duncan officials say they believe the discontent expressed by many of its ministers provides an opening with congregations that straddle the Baltimore city-county line.
"We believe that in the African-American community there are a lot of people looking for an alternative" to O'Malley, said Duncan campaign manager Scott Archineaux. For example, on Sunday, three days after his Union Baptist announcement, Duncan appeared at services at Lochearn Presbyterian Church with two African-American Baltimore County Democrats - state Sen. Delores G. Kelley and Del. Adrienne A. Jones, speaker pro tem of the House of Delegates.
But O'Malley supporters say the ministerial alliance speaks for a small segment and that the mayor's record on reducing crime and supporting minority businesses has buttressed his support among blacks - most notably with the City Council, which has a black majority.
They also point to his support from other ministers with large congregations such as the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple.
"I'm living in the middle of Mayor O'Malley's productivity," said Bryant, who has a congregation of about 10,000. His support for O'Malley marks a reversal after opposing the mayor in 1999 and 2003. His past opposition was based on close relationships with other candidates. "I don't have anything against Mr. Duncan, but I know Mr. O'Malley," he said.
Some O'Malley supporters say ministers and other blacks backing Duncan did not like O'Malley in 1999 mostly because of race and have opposed him ever since because of lack of access. Supporters say O'Malley's 1999 victory and his decisive re-election - with broad black support - prove black voters do not like racial appeals.
"My election was a resounding rebuke to those who would engage in the politics of division and fear," O'Malley said last week.
Nevertheless, Duncan has been working on getting the support of black ministers in the city for months. In July, he spoke at Trinity Baptist Church to support the ministerial alliance and its offshoot, Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, in their fight against O'Malley's $305 million bid to build a city-owned hotel.
The council approved the hotel, but only after O'Malley reached a deal with BUILD to create an affordable-housing fund. Wounds from the fight linger with some ministers, who say O'Malley sides with downtown development over neighborhoods.
"The only kind of jobs we're going to have in this city are at hotels and hospitals," said the Rev. P.M. Smith, pastor of Huber Memorial Church and a ministerial alliance member.
Unlike Bryant, who commented about progress in his tony Canton neighborhood, Smith says he sees too much crime and drugs outside his Luzerne Avenue home in a blighted section of East Baltimore.
The Rev. Gregory Perkins, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church, also in East Baltimore, said he also sees little progress and believes that Duncan's strategy will work.
"O'Malley does not have a good relationship with the black community," said Perkins, former president of the alliance.
Despite BUILD's success with the housing-fund deal, it remains unclear whether the ministerial alliance's support, which Duncan has yet to formally receive, still holds sway with congregants.
Duncan could get further support if Schmoke - who as mayor clashed frequently with then-Councilman O'Malley - resurrects his old political organization to help. Former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, the state comptroller who is still well-known in the city, also is backing the county executive.
O'Malley supporters doubt that Duncan will make serious inroads in Baltimore because black voters see progress and know that perfection is not possible in the face of entrenched urban ills.
"I think the mayor has done a very good job," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the influential Baltimore Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "I have not seen anything that would warrant any kind of campaign beating up on him based on some kind of racial issues."
Several council members said any frustration among blacks is too small to give Duncan traction.
The ministers "represent a segment of frustration in our neighborhoods - of blight and of what's happening with crime," said City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. "They're resentful that the city has a white mayor."
The resentment stems from the 1999 election, in which O'Malley defeated two black councilmen, Carl Stokes and Lawrence A. Bell III. Crucial to his victory was the backing of several black leaders: Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who died in 2003; state Sen. Joan Carter Conway; and Reid.
After his election, O'Malley's relationship with the alliance was further strained when he refused to finance an after-school program run by BUILD. Instead, he established a process to award after-school grants to more groups and with far more financial oversight.
Perkins said he became the alliance's president in 2001 in part to re-establish ties with O'Malley. The mayor "made it clear he did not want to work with the IMA," Perkins said.
Reid, who said he will endorse O'Malley in the primary, believes the alliance's lingering opposition stems from being shut out of City Hall.
Although the mayor enjoys a tight alliance with most of the council, especially with President Sheila Dixon, O'Malley has not had good relations with other black elected officials: State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and - more recently - Conway.
In 2003, Conway, Jessamy and Stokes joined businessman Raymond V. Haysbert, chairman of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, at a secret meeting to try to find a credible black candidate to challenge O'Malley in the Democratic mayoral primary.
None was found, leaving Andrey Bundley, a high school principal and political novice, as the mayor's only opponent. O'Malley's detractors claim that Bundley's 30 percent of the primary vote indicated weakness in O'Malley's black base. But O'Malley won with one of the widest margins in city history and with a clear majority of black voters.
With O'Malley at the helm, the city has almost doubled awards to minority businesses, from $44.7 million in 2000 to $83.1 million in 2004. And more than 70 percent of city workers report to black department heads. Such statistics have won praise from Haysbert and minority-business advocate Arnold Jolivet, who say O'Malley has done more for minorities than Schmoke did as mayor.
Duncan supporters say O'Malley is losing many black voters frustrated with his policing tactics. Although most agree that city crime is down, many critics question whether it's been reduced by 40 percent, as FBI statistics show. They also are concerned that thousands of residents - mostly black males - are being arrested, only to have prosecutors decline to pursue the charges. Del. Jill P. Carter, a city Democrat, has been railing against the mayor and what she calls "illegal arrests."
"He has had no effect on crime," Perkins said. But he did concede: "Drug dealers are not as brazen."
O'Malley supporters, like Reid, say police are only answering the call to aggressively fight crime.
"The mayor and his Police Department - they do not commit murders," Reid said. "At the end of the day, it's about who can win. ... [O'Malley] would have a better chance of beating Governor Ehrlich."