By Josh Kurtz
Former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) turned up unannounced at a meet-and-greet event in Baltimore last week for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D), who is running for governor in 2018.
Dressed casually in jeans and an open-neck shirt and dripping wet from the rainstorm outside, O’Malley hugged Baker and showered him with praise, ticking off a list of weighty agenda items on which the two had collaborated.
“County Executive Baker would be an outstanding governor for this state,” O’Malley said.
But later, he made it clear that he was not ready to offer an endorsement just yet.
“I think we have some outstanding candidates running for our party’s nomination, and I plan to be supportive of each of them initially,” O’Malley told Maryland Matters.
O’Malley’s words of encouragement for the Democratic field – seven candidates and possibly growing – may well be a sign of his generosity toward those aspiring to follow in his footsteps. But it also illustrates how wide open the fight for the right to take on Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is. There is no overwhelming favorite for the nomination, the way O’Malley was when he first ran in 2006, and as there often is when the party establishment coalesces behind a candidate.
For further proof, consider the O’Malley Diaspora, the band of loyalists who worked for and advised him when he was governor and mayor of Baltimore. They are all over the place when it comes to picking a favorite for the 2018 gubernatorial election.
“I think different people are supporting different people and they all have their different relationships,” said businessman Martin Knott, an O’Malley friend, adviser and major donor.
Some alumni are on the payrolls of the Democratic candidates. Some are informally advising certain contenders. Others are informally advising more than one.
“It’s a small state and a crowded field,” observed Rick Abbruzzese, a former O’Malley senior adviser and communications director. “But all these guys are well-qualified.”
Many of O’Malley’s one-time advisers are close to Jim Shea, the former managing director of the powerful Venable law firm in downtown Baltimore who is making his first run for office in the 2018 gubernatorial election. Shea has longstanding ties to O’Malley, and as governor O’Malley appointed Shea chairman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.
Several of O’Malley’s ex-advisers travel in the same circles as Shea and talk to him regularly. Craig Varoga, chief strategist of O’Malley’s 2010 re-election campaign and lead strategist in the 2012 push for the referendum to expand gambling in Maryland, is a top architect of Shea’s campaign. Varoga has worked for campaigns across the country, including President Clinton’s re-election in 1996.
Although he has yet to formally launch his gubernatorial bid, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is relying on some old O’Malley hands. Colleen Martin-Lauer, a longtime O’Malley fundraiser and strategist, is performing the same role for Kamenetz, who is expected to announce his candidacy soon. Kevin Loeb, who ran the field operation for O’Malley’s gubernatorial re-election, is Kamenetz’s policy director for the county government, but he has informally helped Kamenetz reach out to Democrats across the state.
Steve Kearney, co-founder of the well-connected Baltimore firm KOFA Public Affairs, who handled O’Malley’s communications when he was governor and in City Hall, said he is “all-in” for Kamenetz. The firm has worked on several development projects in Baltimore County during Kamenetz’s tenure.
But the other co-founder of KOFA, Damian O’Doherty, another O’Malley intimate, has cast his lot with Alec Ross, the tech entrepreneur and former State Department official who is waging an unconventional campaign. In a text message, O’Doherty said he doesn’t want the Democrats to make the same mistake they did in 2014, when they dutifully lined up behind O’Malley’s lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown, even though more exciting alternatives were available.
“We’ve been here before,” said O’Doherty, who recently moved to Aspen, Colo., to tend to the firm’s business in the Centennial State. “We knew [then-Howard County Executive] Ken Ulman was the best candidate to represent Democratic values for governor in the last election. But we caved. We were sheep. We listened to the Old Bulls, High Priests, and Party Elites…and we got whupped by a zero.”
O’Doherty isn’t alone among the diaspora: Colm O’Comartun, a former top O’Malley aide on the campaign trail, in government and when O’Malley was chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, is informally advising Ross.
Knott – who was Brown’s finance chairman in his unsuccessful race against Hogan – said he is inclined to stay on the sidelines in 2018 but finds Ross appealing, because he has “great Democratic values and business experience.”
“I feel like voters are looking for someone who hasn’t been on the inside yet,” Knott said. “I think ultimately the outsiders are going to be in and the insiders are going to be out.”
Another outsider candidate, former White House official Krishanti Vignarajah, is being helped by Steve Rabin, a former O’Malley and Obama administration speechwriter.
“I think that Krish is special,” said Rabin, who is acting as an informal adviser as Vignarajah prepares to formally announce her bid on Sept. 19. “It’s not that often that someone like her comes along and has the combination of being absolutely brilliant, the combination of being service-oriented, the combination of a compelling life story – and has the ability to defeat Larry Hogan.”
Rabin said he met Vignarajah a few years ago on a foundation-sponsored trip to Israel – the same trip where Vignarajah met her future husband, Collin O’Mara, the president of the National Wildlife Federation.
“The Democratic Party has not only never elected a woman of color governor, the Democratic Party has never nominated a woman of color for governor,” Rabin said. “It’s about time.”
The campaign manager for former NAACP President Ben Jealous, Travis Tazelaar, was executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party for part of the time O’Malley was governor and did some early work on his presidential campaign. He has also worked for David Byrd, an old friend and longtime consultant of Baker’s.
Mollie Byron, a former O’Malley State House and presidential campaign staffer, is a volunteer and informal adviser Baker – for whom she briefly worked after O’Malley’s Annapolis tenure ended.
Baker himself seems eager to draw links between his record and O’Malley’s.
During his event last week in the ground-floor lounge of a newly refurbished apartment building in the Hampden neighborhood, Baker spoke about how O’Malley reached out to him when he was elected county executive and how they collaborated on numerous initiatives to help Prince George’s County. As governor, Baker said, he’ll work closely with local leaders to do the same for Baltimore city.
“That’s what you do when you want to see a part of the state – and its citizens – rebound,” he said. “We make Baltimore city what it should be, then Prince George’s County and Montgomery County and Howard County and Anne Arundel County all prosper. That’s what I as governor want to bring.”
O’Malley told the 30 people attending the event that Baker has been unafraid to make tough, politically unpopular choices.
“I know Rushern Baker,” he said. “I’ve known him for a really long time…This guy never flinched. He always had true north. He never faltered.”
Three sources familiar with O’Malley’s thinking said he was inclined to favor Baker for governor – privately if not publicly – until Shea entered the race, and is now torn because he and Shea have been so close. No matter what, they said, he is determined to be as helpful as he can to all the candidates and will enthusiastically support the eventual Democratic nominee.
“I guess it’s not unusual, having served as governor, to have relationships with everybody running to be governor,” O’Malley said in an interview.
But as his former team disperses into various camps during this gubernatorial election, one former O’Malley confidant is playing an outsized role in a way that puts him at odds with most of the O’Malley Diaspora. Former Del. Tim Maloney (D), a behind-the-scenes powerhouse in Maryland who was close to O’Malley, is now a top consigliere to his friend and former housemate – Larry Hogan.