- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer called on Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan yesterday to unify the Democratic Party, which is struggling against a growing Republican threat.

Maryland Democrats began losing political clout this year when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. became the state’s first Republican governor in three decades, and they appear likely to continue the slide until they find a powerful message to counter Mr. Ehrlich’s promise not to increase taxes.

Infighting among Democratic leaders during this year’s General Assembly — particularly about legislation to put slot machine at horse tracks — also has created problems.

While Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. labored for votes, House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s opposition nixed the bill in committee.

The party must “come to some conclusion, some consensus,” Mr. Schaefer, 81, said yesterday. “One cannot be against slots and one for slots.”

He said the party needed a leader like Mr. Duncan, calling him one of the party’s “best and most progressive” leaders.

Mr. Duncan is considered to be the Democratic front-runner to challenge Mr. Ehrlich for governor in 2006.

Mr. Schaefer, a Democrat and former Maryland governor, said party Chairman Isaiah Leggett was a “fine man” but that the party needed Mr. Duncan because he is “not afraid to speak out.”

He also said Mr. Leggett and Mr. Duncan could work together to create a strong message for the party.

A spokesman for Mr. Duncan said yesterday that he had been traveling the state with Mr. Leggett discussing Democratic values.

However, the spokesman also said Mr. Duncan had “full confidence” in Mr. Leggett’s ability as a party chairman and did not want to replace him.

Mr. Leggett said yesterday that the lack of unity was a “transitional problem” that would soon be resolved. One problem, he said, was that the General Assembly came so quickly after the midterm elections that Democrats had little time to plan an agenda.

He also acknowledged that surrendering the Governor’s Mansion for the first time in more than 30 years had highlighted differences among lawmakers.

“Certainly the absence of a governor hurts unity,” he said. “The assumption that we would be united from top to bottom right after the elections is ridiculous.”

His first mission has been to make peace, especially between the two strong-willed and fiercely independent chamber leaders, Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch.

One sign of progress came at a recent news conference when the three men took a united stand against Mr. Ehrlich’s stance that he would not raise taxes. Mr. Ehrlich vetoed business tax increases this year, but his budget resulted 5 cent increase in the property tax rate.

“Both Busch and Miller came out very strongly as a unified group,” Mr. Leggett said.

Meanwhile, some Democrats in Baltimore, particularly black lawmakers, recently announced that they were looking for a candidate to challenge Mayor Martin O’Malley, a party favorite.

There also have been rumors about Mr. Schaefer challenging Mr. O’Malley in the Democratic primary.

Mr. Schaefer, who was Baltimore mayor for 15 years, yesterday denied that he was considering such a run but later said there was a “very small chance” that he might.

He has often been critical of Mr. O’Malley and yesterday said the mayor should “put his eye on the mayor’s office instead of on the governor’s office.”

“As soon as he stops that and puts his nose into the problems of the city, he will do a great job,” Mr. Schaefer said.

Political observers said the growing opposition to Mr. O’Malley shows a further split within the Democratic Party.

“O’Malley should be the front-runner [for mayor], and the fact that there is opposition to him indicates fractures inside the party,” said Christopher Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a Germantown-based think tank.

He also said the Democratic Party was learning a bitter lesson about losing the governor’s seat.

“The Democrats have finally realized that they are not the only viable party and that there is a strong, viable party against them,” he said.

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