A worthy effort in the Maryland governor's race falls short


It can be a cruel game.

Behind all the polling, fundraising and speechifying, there are human beings, men and women who bleed and suffer, who sacrifice themselves and their families, who commit themselves to public service even as the public grows ever more willing to see them as crassly self-serving.

If you're a candidate, you try to smile through it. Sometimes it doesn't work.

Last week, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan withdrew as a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He said clinical depression forced him to the sidelines.

Thus did more than a year of arduous daily campaigning, and possibly an entire career, come to end. And just as the candidate and his campaign seemed ready to emerge as real competition in a race in which the opponent, Mayor Martin O'Malley, had seemed to be the runaway favorite.

Surely such a contest takes a personal toll. Mr. Duncan had seemed vigorous and optimistic in recent campaign appearances, and his campaign machinery continued to pump out news of endorsements and to lodge vigorous criticisms of Mr. O'Malley's stewardship in Baltimore. Then came the withdrawal announcement.

In the month preceding his surprising decision, Mr. Duncan had seemed to be gaining momentum. He was within 10 points of Mr. O'Malley in a poll, putting him as close to the frontrunner as he had been in this marathon race. He had made former Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms his lieutenant governor running mate. And he had mounted a bold early TV blitz hoping to capitalize on the good news.

Then came a seismic series of events surrounding the 72 percent Baltimore Gas and Electric rate increase issue. In Baltimore City Hall - and in the Duncan camp, no doubt - the campaign suddenly had one issue: rate relief.

Mr. Duncan called for a special session of the General Assembly, but Mayor O'Malley went to court and secured a judgment against the Maryland Public Service Commission. That ruling forced the special session, which resulted in a plan to limit the increase to 15 percent for 11 months.

Suddenly, Mr. O'Malley could claim credit for decisive action that allows Marylanders to prepare for the inevitable higher rates. Polls conducted during this period suggested a dramatic swing to the mayor. Mr. Duncan was the chief casualty. Instead of a spike in donations, he seemed likely instead to be in a fundraising free-fall.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. may also be damaged by this event, but he has more financial resources - and no competition in his Republican primary. For him, the question is whether money for advertising can repair whatever damage may have been done to his standing. And of course, it is a long campaign in which the issues will change,

Collateral damage to the governor, if any, will hardly be consoling to Mr. Duncan. He immediately threw his support to his opponent, a bittersweet gesture for those who wanted to see a Democratic governor - but not Martin O'Malley.

Beyond that, Mr. Duncan's success at carrying the fight to the Baltimore mayor is a contribution to the political process. Duncan supporters will be hard-pressed to applaud, but a vigorous campaign is what politics gives to the choosing of leaders.

Mr. Duncan had his detractors, to be sure. There were those in the Democratic Party who thought some of his attacks went beyond the facts. Based on a newspaper account, for example, he suggested Mr. O'Malley had "cooked" the books on crime reduction in the city. Independent proof should have been adduced to bolster that charge, critics thought.

Many in the party had hoped Mr. Duncan would run for state comptroller, a decision that might have persuaded former Gov. William Donald Schaefer to call it a political day. Mr. Schaefer had been one of Mr. Duncan's strongest supporters - and after the death of Louis L. Goldstein, he urged former Gov. Parris N. Glendening to nominate Mr. Duncan. When that didn't happen, Mr. Schaefer made a comeback. He has filed to run again this year. That he would have deferred to Mr. Duncan - to please party strategists - seems unlikely, but not impossible.

All of which is inside political baseball now. Doug Duncan gave it his best shot but couldn't overcome the debilitating effects of depression. Not all participants win this game, but they are not all losers.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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