Duncan, O'Malley Battle For Teachers' Gold Star

By Robert Barnes and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 19, 2006

There's one person almost sure to be on Douglas M. Duncan's "must call" list whenever he takes his campaign for governor to the far reaches of Western Maryland: a schoolteacher named Valeria Arch.

The attention has paid off: "I'm just very pleased with what Doug Duncan has done and his commitment" to education, Arch said. But it's her position as president of the Allegany County Teachers Association that makes her a coveted enthusiast for Duncan, who has mounted an extensive campaign to win the endorsement of the Maryland State Teachers Association, which meets today and tomorrow in Columbia.

With phone calls, mailings and months of work courting individual delegates and influential members, Montgomery County Executive Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, opponents in the Democratic primary, have turned the union's decision into a mini-Iowa caucus.

"The candidates have deluged us with information," said Carol Kilby, president of the Prince George's County Educators' Association. "A lot of trees have died for this."

Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic operative in Maryland who is neutral in the governor's race, said: "It's one of the most important endorsements out there. Teachers are very active in the community. This provides a great cadre of people to say this is our candidate and why. . . . It shows voters that the people most involved in educating their children have confidence in a candidate."

The teachers' blessing would give Duncan a boost in a race in which he has trailed O'Malley in polling, fundraising and the chase for other key endorsements. It would also help validate Duncan's "Education First" agenda, which he has trumpeted since the early weeks of his campaign.

A teachers union endorsement of O'Malley would bolster his campaign's efforts to portray the mayor as the inevitable Democratic nominee. And it could blunt criticism of the Baltimore school system, which despite improvements in recent years remains the lowest-performing in the state and a political vulnerability for the mayor.

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declined to answer the association's questionnaire or sit for an interview, taking him out of the process.

But others running for statewide office are actively seeking the group's recommendation; on the day Kilby spoke with a reporter, she had just gotten off the phone with Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Senate candidate and one of a half-dozen Democrats who have complied with the group's process, as has Republican Senate candidate Michael S. Steele, the lieutenant governor.

The 64,000-member union includes Republicans but is a branch of the National Education Association, which has been closely aligned with Democratic politics. And it is in Democratic campaigns -- especially for governor, because statewide education and fiscal policies so directly affect teachers -- that the union's influence is felt most keenly.

"They give you support in places where you might not have a campaign organization," said Karen White, who ran former Democratic governor Parris N. Glendening's first statewide campaign in 1998.

Both sides acknowledge that Duncan has an important advantage borne of geography and familiarity.

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