By Matthew Mosk and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 23, 2006
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan abruptly ended his run for governor yesterday, saying that he is battling clinical depression, a development that instantly transforms Maryland's most high-profile political battle into a sharply focused duel.
Duncan threw his support behind Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), the man he has been pummeling in television ads and on the stump in the Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign for the past nine months. Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had anticipated a free ride all summer as the two Democrats drained their resources trying to gain an advantage. With Duncan and O'Malley united, Democrats said, the entire complexion of the race has changed.
Duncan, 50, made his announcement at a hastily arranged gathering of campaign aides and long-time county employees in Rockville, where teary-eyed supporters consoled each other with hugs. When Duncan stepped to the podium, the room filled with boisterous cheers.
"I still believe we can move Maryland forward to better things, that we can create a state of greatness," Duncan said as his wife, Barbara, gently patted his back, took deep breaths and strained to smile. "But today, I'm here to say that I'm not going to be leading that effort."
Duncan, Montgomery's dominant political figure for more than a decade, formally launched his bid for governor in October, touring the state in a late-model recreational vehicle, promising to fill a leadership void and change the culture of partisanship in Annapolis. In recent months, as his campaign showed signs of strain -- he has trailed in the polls and fundraising -- neither Duncan nor his advisers gave any hint of a personal struggle.
But yesterday, Duncan said he had been experiencing symptoms of depression for more than a year. Initially, he said, he attributed the feelings to the stress of seeking statewide office. But in the past few months, he said, "it became clear to me that this was more than the usual wear and tear of the campaign trail."
Aides said that his depression was formally diagnosed Monday and that he is now taking medication. His family has a history of mental health problems, including his late father, who was bipolar, campaign aides said. Bipolar disorder can be a serious and disabling mood condition. Duncan told supporters that he will remain as county executive, overseeing the second-largest jurisdiction in the Washington region, as he undergoes treatment. But he said campaigning was no longer an option.
"For people who have not suffered from this illness or lived with a loved one who does, they may not understand just how difficult this can be. It is very difficult," said Duncan, who is one of 13 children and has five of his own.
"And it is difficult for me to announce today that I will no longer be a candidate for governor of Maryland," he said. "But it is the right decision for me, my family and our state."
Two hours before making his public announcement, Duncan phoned O'Malley, who ducked out of Mass at St. Alphonsus Church in Baltimore to take the call.
"I told him [my wife] Katie and I would be praying for him and Barbara, as he deals with his medical issues," O'Malley said in a statement released by his campaign.
Ehrlich was told of the development after a State House news conference. He declined to comment as he hustled back to his residence but later released a statement, saying he was "saddened" to learn of Duncan's health concerns. "Doug is a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. He embodies the personal decency and graciousness Marylanders deserve from their public servants," the governor said.
The announcement came just a week before candidates must officially file for office, meaning that Duncan's name will not appear on the September primary ballot.
Aides to Ehrlich and O'Malley said they would be assessing the impact of Duncan's decision before deciding on any strategic adjustments. Ehrlich just put his first television ad in circulation this week and plans to formally announce his reelection bid and name a running mate in his home town of Arbutus next week.
Political analysts said yesterday that there was little question that the decision benefits O'Malley, who had been bracing for a summer-long battle with Duncan. Keith Haller of the independent research firm Potomac Inc. called it "very good news for O'Malley and the Democratic Party."
"He'll save millions of dollars he may have had to spend to respond to Duncan," Haller said. "It changes the whole tone of the dialogue right now."
Haller said O'Malley will now be free to court more conservative voters without having to fear he will lose the backing of his party's liberal base in the primary. And Duncan's departure could give the mayor greater access to campaign money in the state's wealthiest county -- money that may have been off-limits to him while Duncan was on the ballot.
The decision could also ripple through other statewide campaigns. The lack of a heated contest at the top of the ticket could diminish turnout for the September primary, which would alter calculations for those in the crowded race for U.S. Senate. And it throws Duncan's running mate, Stuart Simms, who once served as a prosecutor in Baltimore, back into the mix of the attorney general race, which has lacked a candidate from the Baltimore area.
"It's a whole different dynamic," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
Although Duncan cited health reasons as the cause for his withdrawal, there has been broad speculation that the campaign was running low on money and would fall out of contention this summer, said James G. Gimpel, a University of Maryland political science professor.
"I think we had all along been figuring that Duncan would eventually throw in the towel for one reason or another," Gimpel said. "Just not this reason."
In May, Duncan took a gamble by launching television ads before any other candidate, a move that seemed to be showing gains in some polls. But he was stung by the disclosure that he had accepted $20,000 in campaign contributions from companies linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and he went on the defensive.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said that he believes he saw signs of Duncan's depression last week at an event held by U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) in Largo.
"You could see he was down in the dumps," Miller said. "I told him, 'Cheer up. You're swimming with the sharks. Don't let it get to you.' "
Several people close to Duncan said that over the years, they had observed "blue phases" or "funks" when Duncan was emotionally down for extended periods. He has spent nearly a quarter-century in public life, first on the Rockville City Council, then as that city's mayor, then as county executive. But none of that rivaled a gubernatorial bid, friends said.
In recent months, Duncan struggled to muster the enthusiasm to make fundraising calls and attend campaign events, aides said. His wife had started calling potential donors for him in the past week.
"It wasn't the same Doug Duncan," said Anita Dunn, his campaign media consultant.
County Councilman Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) said there's no question that campaign difficulties would have added to the pressure Duncan felt. But in the end, he said, he believes Duncan's decision to withdraw from the governor's race, as surprising as it might have been, had nothing to do with political calculations.
Although attitudes about mental illness have evolved since 1972, when Democratic vice presidential nominee Tom Eagleton was forced off the ticket after disclosing previous electroshock therapy treatments for depression, it can still carry a stigma.
"You don't get up in front of the whole world to announce that you are clinically depressed if you are really withdrawing for some other reason," Silverman said. "It was a gutsy thing he did, to stand up there and say he was going to seek treatment. A lot of people never do -- and some don't get out of this disease alive."
Staff writer Jo Becker contributed to this report.