Taking a brief foray back into Baltimore politics yesterday, Gov. Martin O'Malley endorsed longtime ally Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's bid to become City Council president in what is shaping up to be one of the closest races of this year's election.
O'Malley has been working behind the scenes for Rawlings-Blake for months, but the formal endorsement underscored his support at an important time and simultaneously raised questions about whether the state's most powerful Democrat will back a candidate in the mayor's race.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Stephanie's ability to bring people together, to focus on the big, important goals that all of us who love the city of Baltimore share," O'Malley said in the Belvedere Square shopping center. "She has, in short ... done a terrific job as a leader and a public servant."
O'Malley's announcement came days after a new poll for The Sun showed that the race for council president is extremely close, with 26 percent of likely Democratic voters supporting Rawlings-Blake and 27 percent supporting her chief opponent, neighborhood advocate Michael Sarbanes. Eight percent said they support City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.
The poll, conducted by Annapolis-based OpinonWorks, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The poll shows that O'Malley enjoys considerable support in the city: 67 percent of voters said they have a favorable impression of him, while 20 percent said they do not.
"We were able to do a lot of great things as we pushed through legislation to achieve real progress in our city," Rawlings-Blake said. "We are in a unique position now to continue that progress. ... Our governor knows that to heal a city you cannot merely stand by as a critic."
In 1999, Rawlings-Blake encouraged her father, the late state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, to endorse O'Malley, then a colleague on the council, for mayor. The backing of the powerful African-American delegate boosted O'Malley's credibility as a white candidate in a predominantly black city.
For seven years after that, Rawlings-Blake served as vice president of the City Council under O'Malley - a position that made her responsible for getting the mayor's legislation approved. When O'Malley became governor, the City Council president at the time, Sheila Dixon, became mayor. Rawlings-Blake was then elected by the council to serve the remainder of Dixon's term.
Sarbanes, who is on leave as director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association and who is the son of former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes - the state's longest-serving U.S. senator - said his campaign is looking ahead.
"People are very focused on the future and where the city's going and where leadership can take the city in the future," Sarbanes said. "I think that's what the campaign should be about."
While O'Malley has been involved in the council president's race, he has steered clear of the mayor's campaign. Asked yesterday whether he intended to endorse a candidate in that race, he said: "We'll answer those questions on another day."
Though it was not discussed, the location of the announcement - in Belvedere Square - was surely no accident. The shopping area is in the heart of Harris' City Council district. Harris was an outspoken critic of O'Malley's mayoral administration.
"I've always been the underdog. I've been the underdog all my life ... nobody's given me anything," Harris said when asked about the endorsement. "I'm going to work for the citizens of Baltimore, for their vote."
Read our city elections blog at baltimoresun.com/electionsblog