Josh Kurtz: Betting the Chalk

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The Baltimore mayoral election is developing the feel of a rout.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s challengers will continue to take their whacks at her – beginning tonight, at a forum sponsored by the community development coalition BUILD. The campaign is starting to look like a gang attack.

But it hardly seems to matter.

At this point, it will probably take a calamity of the highest order between now and the Sept. 13 Democratic primary – maybe during the Grand Prix race over Labor Day weekend – to dislodge Rawlings-Blake from City Hall. And that’s a ghoulish thought, one in which opponents are essentially rooting for a nationally televised event in Baltimore to fail.

To say Rawlings-Blake has been a grand success as mayor, as her allies are suggesting, would be wild hyperbole – she’s only been in office for 18 months. But she’s smart and dedicated, with a golden political pedigree. Given the circumstances under which she inherited the job from the scandal-plagued Sheila Dixon, she deserves the benefit of the doubt – and probably a full term.

As Rawlings-Blake juggles raising a young daughter with running the city, many voters look at the mayor and feel like she’s one of them. It’s certainly easier to connect with her than with any of her recent predecessors – the imperious Dixon, the rock star Martin O’Malley, the cerebral Kurt Schmoke, or the eccentric bachelor William Donald Schaefer.

In a video on her campaign website, Rawlings-Blake talks about the importance of the city’s neighborhoods, and vows, “We’re trying to work to empower communities.”

But she’s running a classic top-down campaign, with heavy support from downtown business interests, buttressed by the endorsement of “Team Baltimore,” as U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) likes to call it – meaning just about every elected official as far as the eye can seem including some who don’t even live in Baltimore City. However much you like Rawlings-Blake, you can’t help but observe all the forces arrayed in her corner and think the fix is in.

Rawlings-Blake is also outspending her opponents by a wide margin. More telling than the pure fundraising numbers themselves is the amount of money being spent on paid media.

Between January and the beginning of this month, Rawlings-Blake reported spending $399,000 on media, plus a separate $25,000 paid to McMahon Squire, one of the top Democratic media firms in the country. Her top two primary opponents, state Sen. Catherine Pugh and former city Planning Director Otis Rolley, spent $45,000 on media combined during that period.

Rolley has been dismissive – disdainful, really – of the establishment support Rawlings-Blake is racking up.

“It helps to keep them in power,” he told me recently. “It’s politics as usual, the politics as usual that’s helped to raise the decline of the city.”

All of Rawlings-Blake’s challengers are now trying to make an issue of the mayor’s close ties to Gov. O’Malley. These may be saleable talking points. But the messengers are deeply flawed.

Rolley has potential – he’s an accomplished, credentialed policy wonk. But his outsider campaign has failed to take off; the outsider thing only goes so far when you used to be an insider.

Pugh’s candidacy is even harder to figure out. She’s shown more fundraising muscle than Rolley – thanks in part to the quick $75,000 loan she got from auto baron Scott Donahoo. She has also attracted contributions from Annapolis colleagues and from entities that are regulated by the Senate Finance Committee and the transportation subcommittee she leads.

But Pugh, who shares a West Baltimore political base with the mayor, has presented even less of a rationale for her candidacy than Rolley. She’s got to press for a relatively strong showing in the primary or risk jeopardizing her ambitions to move up the ladder in the state Senate.

As for Jody Landers, the former city councilman who’s also running, even though he’s a serious guy, it’s hard to see him as anything but the white candidate – and a badly funded one at that.

One can only imagine what the dynamic of the race would have been like if Rawlings-Blake had one major challenger instead of splintered opposition, if foes of the status quo had one strong vehicle to get behind instead of a variety of relatively weak choices.

Back in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was on his way to thumping Walter Mondale in the presidential election, William Safire, of all people, wrote a column in The New York Times lamenting that Mondale wasn’t doing better. He hopefully compared Mondale to Silky Sullivan, a race horse for famous for his come-from-behind near-victories, and occasional fluke-y wins.

“You can’t do a thing with him,” the great jockey Willie Shoemaker once said about Silky Sullivan. “You just have to allow him to run his own race at his own speed, in his own style.”

Safire, a conservative who had been Richard Nixon’s and Spiro Agnew’s wordsmith, was by no means rooting for Mondale to win. He just wanted to see a close and exciting race, and felt it would be better for the republic than a landslide.

It may be discordant to bring up horse racing when the city is about to host a world-class auto race. But in much the same way, fans of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake – really, all Baltimore voters – might want to root a little for one of her challengers to have a late surge. A tough race will make Rawlings-Blake a better candidate, and ultimately, a better mayor.

So, to steal the last three words of Safire’s column all those years ago, “Come on, Silky!”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Death Knell for Democrats?

The Bruce of Summer

Nightmare Scenario

Sources: Congressional delegation Dems eye Bartlett as redistricting target

Talkin’ 'Bout Their Generation

A Triple Play of Political Shame – An Indictment of the Ehrlich Campaign, Maryland’s Fumble on Gay Marriage, and the Prince George’s Ethical Saga

White Prince George's

A DREAM Denied?

Frack This!

The Undercard

Talking Union Blues
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.