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June 23, 2006

Duncan's political death

Roy Meachum

In Shakespeare's "Macbeth," Duncan was the king murdered to advance Macbeth's ambition. In Maryland, yesterday, gubernatorial candidate Douglas M. Duncan took his own political life. In the process, he appears to have improved considerably retiring Attorney General Joe Curran's chances of babysitting at the White House.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's chief worry - shared by father-in-law Curran - stemmed from the vicissitudes of campaigning; specifically there was concern over the next few months, in pursuit of Maryland's top office, Mr. O'Malley might have to resort to "dirty tricks." That probability considerably lessened Thursday afternoon.

Citing clinical depression, retiring Montgomery County Executive Duncan tossed in a towel that obviously needed tossing. He no longer presents himself as an alternate choice to Mr. O'Malley and Republican Bob Ehrlich. He really has never been. At every turn, his campaign lagged behind Baltimore mayor's reach for their party's nomination, to the regret of Mr. Ehrlich and his staff.

Certainly, the diffident Mr. Duncan could have provided the incumbent a gentler race than Mr. O'Malley's promises. His very "niceness" would have made unnecessary the need for the sometimes brash governor to resort to tactics that might alienate the Democrats needed for his re-election.

Mr. Ehrlich has no realistic hopes for four more years unless he can attract defections from the 2-1 majority party; that's how he won four years ago. But then he drew unparalleled - at least in this century - support from African Americans, generally Democrats. This time around his ticket is not shared with Michael Steele who became, in 2002, the first black politician elected to state office.

Mr. Duncan's withdrawal, taking with him former Baltimore State Attorney Stuart O. Simms, leaves the field clear for Mr. O'Malley's wooing of the minority group, facilitated by his earlier choice of running mate.

By any standard, Prince George's Delegate Anthony Brown was the pick among the African American hopefuls. His minority-dominated county population ranks second only to Montgomery County. His personal credentials include a recently concluded Army reserve tour of Iraq, as lieutenant colonel.

Without Mr. Duncan to support, leaders in the Democratic Party can stand together, impelled in any case to protect their backs against the possibility of Mr. Ehrlich's re-election. Eight years of Republican control at the top could seriously endanger the infrastructure built over the years.

Given a clear sailing, Baltimore's mayor can now fully concentrate on taking the GOP administration to task with no need to protect his back. His chief problem from here on is a matter of self-confidence, too much, that is.

In a real sense, Doug Duncan's decision to fold this gubernatorial tent came as little surprise. By any measure that counts he was on the hind side of Mr. O'Malley; seemingly he was doing everything late. He had neither the political horses nor the deep pockets to make for a race he could win. And never mind those brave protests about coming from behind to take the ribbon. He could have conceded simply, and honorably, throwing support to his rival.

The decision to blame clinical depression was the shocker. Even in this enlightened 21st century, admitting a mental health problem negates aspirations for higher office, defined as being above a smallish city mayor. Under these circumstances, he could return to Rockville but only under acclimation. Mounting a campaign is to invite rumor and innuendo, if not from his opponents, then their respective claques.

What the decent and honorable Douglas Duncan does now is anybody's guess. His years of public service have earned him respite to mend himself before choosing his next move. In our meetings, he struck me as intelligent, caring and sensitive to what was happening around him. Not incidentally, we first shook hands at a post-election party Kathleen Kennedy Townsend gave for her campaign workers and others; the press was invited.

One thing's for sure, Doug Duncan's decency will be missed in the sometimes obscene Maryland political scene.

In Sunday's News-Post column, we consider Mr. Ehrlich's campaign on its own.

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