O'Malley returns the favor in mayoral race

The Baltimore Sun

After eight years of receiving crucial support for his mayoral administration, Gov. Martin O'Malley came to Baltimore yesterday to return the favor to Mayor Sheila Dixon.

O'Malley joined former Rep. Kweisi Mfume in officially endorsing Dixon, lending her mayoral campaign the biggest names to date with less than a month before the Democratic primary.

Standing outside of City Hall in War Memorial Plaza, the trio emerged to the 1980s classic song "Eye of the Tiger," where they were joined by a legion of city and state elected officials.

Both Mfume and O'Malley reflected on Dixon and her family's support of their own candidacies.

For Mfume, that support dates to Dixon's mother's backing in his 1979 City Council campaign, continuing with Dixon's help on his 1986 congressional campaign and failed campaign for U.S. Senate last year. For O'Malley, the partnership evolved when he was elected mayor and she City Council president in 1999.

"During my time as mayor ... I could not have accomplished anything were it not for the openness, the candor, the honesty and the partnership extended to me by Sheila Dixon, your next mayor," said O'Malley. "I can tell you that Sheila Dixon, in the toughest of times, maintained partnership in order that the city might progress."

Dixon's chief opponent, Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., said yesterday he is surprised that O'Malley decided to endorse the mayor, saying he had anticipated that the governor - whom he campaigned for last year - would choose not to publicly back anyone. He quickly charged that the endorsement brands Dixon as the "establishment" candidate for those who are satisfied with the city's current schools and surge in violent crime.

Dixon, who served on the council with O'Malley, was elevated to mayor in January when O'Malley was elected governor.

She is one of eight candidates in the Sept. 11 Democratic mayoral primary. Others include Mitchell, state Del. Jill P. Carter, Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. and schools administrator Andrey Bundley.

Dixon acknowledged that when she and O'Malley served on the council, they were on opposite sides.

"We were on different sides and that was just based on the environment at that time," said Dixon. "But when he ran for mayor and I ran for City Council president, we agreed that we were going to change the environment in the political arena in this city government to move this city forward."

In 1999, a week before the election, Dixon joined with her pastor, Rev. Frank M. Reid III, to back O'Malley's first campaign for mayor. Helping build credibility in the city's African-American community for the only white candidate, their support - along with the earlier crucial endorsements of two other black elected officials, Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Howard P. Rawlings - helped O'Malley clinch victory. Reid agreed to endorse O'Malley as part of a pact in which then-State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Rawlings backed Dixon - helping her in the council president primary.

O'Malley and Dixon then ran together for re-election in 2003, dubbing themselves "Partners in Progress."

Though O'Malley's endorsement was anticipated, his lack of involvement in Dixon's race has been noticed. By contrast, he has played a more prominent role in City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's race.

Yesterday O'Malley said there was no reason he waited so long to endorse the mayor.

"I am convinced that Sheila Dixon has the tenacity and the commitment to be a mayor for all of the people of our city," he said.

When asked about the city's homicide rate - which is on pace to exceed 300 for the first time this decade - O'Malley characterized it as a "rough patch." He said he believes Dixon is committed to improving public safety and has taken steps, such as firing Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, to reduce crime.

"If I didn't believe that she's committed to that I would not be able to endorse her," he said.

"I think she's hanging in there," said O'Malley of Dixon's crime-fighting strategy, which is markedly different than his zero-tolerance approach as mayor. "During my time as mayor, we went through peaks and violent crime spikes and certainly we're in one of those right now. I think she acted very decisively."

Mfume, who many were urging to run for mayor, said Dixon "has earned the right" to run for mayor.

"It's clear that we have the right opportunity and the right choice today to send a message," said Mfume, the former president of the NAACP. "Does she have all the answers? No," said Mfume. "But she seeks, like all of us, new answers, new ideas, by reaching out every day to community leaders and others."

Yesterday's endorsements follow a string of endorsements Dixon has received, including the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions and 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

Mitchell has received the endorsements of the city's public safety unions representing police, firefighters and deputy sheriffs.

But Dixon leads Mitchell and other competitors, according to a Sun poll conducted last month. Dixon's campaign also has collected more donations than Mitchell's, according to preliminary figures released last week.

C. Vernon Gray, a political science professor at Morgan State University, said the two endorsements were very significant because O'Malley and Mfume are "the two big kahunas in Baltimore City politics."

"I think when they lend their voice and support to Dixon or any candidate, it sends a strong signal of approbation or approval to the entire constituency," said Gray. "So I think it's enormous."

Mitchell, a three-term city councilman making his first run for mayor, met with O'Malley more than a week ago. But Mitchell said he wasn't expecting O'Malley to endorse anyone in the race.

He said he views the endorsements as another indication that his campaign is about change and making the "hard choices" and "necessary moves to move our city forward."

"It's official that the Mitchell campaign is running against the establishment and those satisfied with the status quo, and those satisfied that the city is the second most violent city, and those satisfied that the school system has a 38 percent graduation rate," said Mitchell.

O'Malley yesterday said he has "a great deal of respect for Councilman Mitchell."

"We will hopefully continue to be friends as we move forward," he said. "We served a lot of years on the council together and I have nothing but the greatest respect for him."


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