In Duncan vs. O'Malley, Theater

Reiterating his opposition to expanded gambling, Douglas M. Duncan takes verbal shots at cutouts of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R), left, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley in Silver Spring.
Reiterating his opposition to expanded gambling, Douglas M. Duncan takes verbal shots at cutouts of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R), left, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley in Silver Spring. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

The two Democrats running for governor jockeyed for position yesterday in Montgomery County, with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley making a pilgrimage to the Clarksburg development where building irregularities last year bedeviled his rival, Douglas M. Duncan.

The county executive countered with his own political theater, staging a news conference on slot machine gambling in Silver Spring that included cardboard cutouts of O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). The cutouts have also appeared in Duncan's television ad campaign in Baltimore.

"The people of Maryland should not be fooled by the slick talk and fancy footwork used by this guy here," Duncan said, pointing to the cutout of O'Malley. "We all know there's no middle ground on slots and casinos -- you're either for them or your against them."

Ehrlich favors broader legalization of gambling, while Duncan said yesterday that as governor he would veto any slots bill reaching his desk. O'Malley has sought to position himself between his two rivals, saying he would allow a limited number of slot machines at race tracks to save horse-industry jobs.

O'Malley brushed off Duncan's criticism later in the day, as he and running mate Anthony Brown toured Clarksburg Town Center, where problems that emerged last year came to symbolize concerns about the pace of growth in Montgomery.

"We're here to talk about the big issue of growth," O'Malley told reporters in the midst of a walking tour led by some of the community activists who discovered height and setback violations in the northern Montgomery community. "Clearly, there's no area in our state where this problem is more constant and in-our-face than Montgomery County."

As he walked past rows of townhouses, O'Malley peppered activists with questions: "Which are the buildings with the height problems?" . . . "Was the county just not equipped to handle a big development like this?"

The problems at Clarksburg have been blamed on the Montgomery County Planning Board, which does not report to Duncan. But several of those leading the tour were critical of the county executive's growth policies and said he had not been sufficiently responsive to their concerns.

Kathie Hulley, incoming president of the Clarksburg Civic Association, recalled Duncan's once setting a meeting for 8 a.m. in Rockville. "Half of us didn't get there in time because of the traffic," she said.

After the tour, O'Malley held a town-hall meeting in Germantown that drew more than 100 to discuss growth and sprawl.

Rockville Mayor Larry Giammo, an O'Malley ally, led an often wonkish discussion on such issues as a lack of affordable housing, the large number of trailers being used as classrooms at public schools and longer commutes because of traffic congestion. Before the visit, Duncan said O'Malley had picked a strange venue to talk about growth. "He doesn't get it," Duncan said. "Germantown is an example of planned growth, of smart growth."

The campaign events underscore the political calculus in Maryland: Montgomery is second only to Prince George's County in registered Democrats, and Duncan strategists acknowledge that he will have to outpoll O'Malley by a wide margin at home to have a shot at winning statewide. O'Malley, who leads in statewide polls, has said for months that he would not cede Montgomery to Duncan.

Duncan has hardly been shy about appearing in Baltimore to talk about O'Malley's challenges with crime, education and other big-city maladies. Just Wednesday night, Duncan sat in on a parent-teacher association meeting about a proposed merger that would move a Baltimore high school into a building that houses elementary and middle school students.

Yesterday's event in Silver Spring had the feel of a Duncan television ad springing to life. After Duncan reiterated his opposition to slots, aides set up the cutouts of O'Malley and Ehrlich on either side of him, and Duncan took verbal shots at both rivals, as he has done in a half-dozen ads appearing over the past month.

Do you think, a television reporter asked him, that appearing with the cardboard cutouts seems "gubernatorial?"

"They won't debate," Duncan replied. "That's the closest I can come to them."

Duncan was dogged at the event by a third, uninvited cutout: the cardboard image of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff holding a sign that read: "I (heart) Duncan and gambling."

A protester held the cutout on a restaurant patio that was visible in the background of Duncan's outdoor news conference. A half-dozen Duncan supporters maneuvered to keep Abramoff's image from appearing on camera by blocking it with campaign signs and anti-gambling placards.

After inquiries from The Washington Post, Duncan announced last week that he would return $20,000 in campaign contributions from companies linked to Abramoff. The contributions reached Duncan's campaign in July 1999, a month before he signed a lease-purchase agreement for a shuttered county school with the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, on whose board Abramoff served.

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