A confluence of star power in the race for city's No. 2

The Baltimore Sun

When the City Council seems adrift and irrelevant, you wonder why the office of council president attracts talented candidates.

Of course, the job title - president - has a ring to it. And you get various trappings: a nice office, a car and a council chamber podium above the fray.

Oh, and it's been a launching pad for mayors.

Within recent history, the City Council president's office has produced some of Baltimore's most colorful and illustrious chief executives, men who have been pre-eminent leaders in critical matters from civil rights to downtown redevelopment. The names include Theodore R. McKeldin, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III and William Donald Schaefer.

The current mayor, Sheila Dixon, did her turn as council president and seems to have grown in that post. So attention must be paid.

This year in particular.

The field offers a fascinating array of endorsers whose star status makes them bankable assets in a campaign. Though officeholders often withhold endorsements in their party primaries - lest they offend and alienate allies - this race involves the paying back of serious IOUs.

As a result, it pits big-noise endorsers against each other.

In addition, some of the candidates come to the race with impressive pedigrees - so much so that family dynasties could be an issue.

Consider the three leading contenders, listed here in alphabetical order:

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. comes to the race without a citywide profile that would mark him as a major contender. But in last year's race for the U.S. Senate, he was one of the first city Democrats to line up with the eventual winner, Benjamin L. Cardin. When it comes to endorsements, "first" can mean plenty. The immediate question for Mr. Harris is whether to stay in the race if the polls show him trailing badly. He may decide to hang on to his council seat and run when the odds are better.

Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake moved into the job when Ms. Dixon moved up to the mayor's office. She's the daughter of the late Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee and an outspoken force in Democratic politics.

He and his daughter, it may be said safely, helped to make Martin O'Malley governor - first by helping to make him mayor. Mr. Rawlings, acting on his daughter's recommendation, backed Mr. O'Malley's race for mayor against two weak black candidates. Without that support, Mr. O'Malley might not have been elected.

Thus, Ms. Rawlings-Blake will have unambiguous support from the governor in this year's race. His well-tested get-out-the-vote organization will be at her disposal. Political leaders want to avoid making enemies, but political history in this case is compelling. It overrides the awkwardness of Mr. O'Malley working, in effect, against the Sarbanes factor.

Michael Sarbanes, son of former U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and brother of John Sarbanes, the new 3rd District congressman, is the dynasty candidate. His last name has always been a vote-drawing and fundraising tool, so he can't be discounted, even as a relative newcomer.

Michael Sarbanes has paid his dues in one of the city's traditionally most important aspects: community activism. He's been the executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, a seed bed of important city leaders for decades. In the tradition of such activism, he has pushed the council toward affordable-housing requirements on developers. The race calls for a demonstration of citywide strength, possibly an advantage for Mr. Sarbanes, whose name has run citywide for 30 years. The question is whether that name recognition is transferable. It was in the case of his brother, but there were a dozen candidates dividing the anti-Sarbanes vote - and no O'Malley-led opponent.

The candidates are surely aware of another bit of council president history. In addition to its mayor-making potential, the job has produced monumental frustration for some of its occupants. Walter S. Orlinsky is the most obvious example. Smart and creative, he was unable to assert his considerable talents on a landscape dominated by the city's renaissance leader, William Donald Schaefer.

That aside, the risk of frustration pales against the opportunity to lead and to dream about possibilities down the road.

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

Last week, I wrote incorrectly that Theodore R. McKeldin had been president of the Baltimore City Council before becoming mayor. I regret the error.
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