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O'Malley continues to expand his organization and his base

The Baltimore Sun

Weak political leaders, whose allies don't get elected, will have difficulty passing major legislation.

It was somewhat coincidental, but just as he unveiled a new tax structure for the state, Gov. Martin O'Malley's political strength - his machine - was on display in the recent primary election in Baltimore.

He enthusiastically endorsed Mayor Sheila Dixon, who won by a big number over Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. Polls suggested she was headed for an easy win, but the O'Malley boost probably made the margin wider.

The Democratic governor's help was more important in the victory of Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who easily defeated the highly regarded challenger, Michael Sarbanes, the lawyer, community activist and son of retired U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. The younger Mr. Sarbanes made a race of it, but the O'Malley group seems never to have doubted it would prevail.

It is likely that the governor's involvement in the election of two strong black women helped his standing in the black community - and with women in general. Both dividends spring, of course, from the overall investment of gubernatorial prestige. The effect is called locking down your base.

The O'Malley base is expanding - something that will probably continue as long as his organization is successful. Important players in his organization are operating not just in Baltimore but in Baltimore County and Howard County.

One of the organization's many stalwarts calls this three-jurisdiction combine the "potato posse," a reference to the many Irish-Americans who control it.

The posse will be useful in Annapolis now, as the governor and his team prepare to explain and defend a new tax structure against powerful opponents - and to show legislators that voting with their governor could earn them the kind of support recently lavished on his supporters in Baltimore.

To address a built-in deficit of about $1.5 billion and to give himself an opportunity to initiate new programs, the governor is proposing a comprehensive new taxing structure. He wants to increase the levy on cigarettes, to broaden the reach of the sales tax and to make the income tax more progressive.

The plan, as outlined last week, is designed to offer a picture of fairness and progressivity. The bulk of the increased burden would fall on higher-income Marylanders. That focus will surely include a discussion of Maryland's status as one of the wealthiest states in the union - and on Mr. O'Malley's campaign pledge to be of assistance to working families whose tax burden may change little under the plan.

The package also includes a slot machine program, though Mr. O'Malley has been less than enthusiastic about more state-sponsored gambling, particularly as a way to pay for core services such as public education. He has agreed to include it in the package because Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller insisted on it - and because, if they vote for higher taxes, some legislators will want to say they insisted on the "free" money of slot machine revenue.

The O'Malley group knows it may have only one chance to increase taxes. All the better, then, to put important election victories into the Annapolis atmosphere.

So far, the O'Malley machine has done nothing palpably nefarious - nothing like the grafting, plundering machines of yore. It has simply put on a show of machine-like efficiency, beginning with the 2006 election of Mr. O'Malley himself.

In that election, he was able to weld his city-based organization to the Baltimore County forces headed by County Executive James Smith Jr. The O'Malley team also had allies in Howard County, riding under the leadership of new County Executive Ken Ulman.

In the recent city elections, the winning candidates had help from the well-tested O'Malley-for-governor forces. In the 2006 election and in the recent primary, they relied heavily on the targeting of likely but less-energetic Democratic voters. Names and voting records obtained from the voter lists allowed efficient "flushing" of likely supporters.

Now the governor and his posse will turn to flushing out votes for the tax package. They'll be hoping their recent successes will help. It's best to look strong on the eve of such a chore.

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

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