Ken Ulman is running for governor.
It’s important to state this up front, although I have no more information than any other citizen and certainly less than most.
But he hasn’t actually said, publicly, officially, that he’s running for governor. The announcement of a candidacy, particularly in realm of an office as high as governorship, is a critical piece of political theater. It’s the official start of the campaign, and the circumstances and pageantry surrounding the event can set the tone for the months-long slog to follow. It’s a branding event with critical importance; it sets the themes the campaign with run on and introduces the initiatives it hopes will resonate with voters.
In 2005, Martin O’Malley announced his run for governor from Patterson Park in Baltimore, where he was the mayor. Check this fawning press coverage: “O’Malley made his announcement from Patterson Park, as a symbol of the city’s revitalization. Patterson Park, which was once a rundown area, is now one of the better places in Baltimore.” Packaging excitement and standing on past accomplishments, showing himself as a successful and accomplished leader where hope had been abandoned, O’Malley went on to win. In 2010, Bob Ehrlich started his campaign off with a whimper, announcing his candidacy to reporters during a conference call. (Hey, remember that exciting conference call? Me either.) He went on to lose. That same year, O’Malley was in Fells Point, emphasizing the Port of Baltimore. He beat Ehrlich. Again.
This isn’t to say that a better announcement is a determining factor in a victory. But when your campaign faces an uphill battle to begin with, every chance to separate from the pack, each opportunity to grab the attention of a voter, is critical. And that’s where the Ulman team sits. Candidacy announcements generally seek to expand your base and highlight accomplishments, but the Ulman team might have to think a little bigger.
The Ulman campaign, I think, is going to have to distinguish itself by being the insurgents, the campaign you didn’t expect. Think Obama in 2008. Who is this guy? Exciting. Youth-oriented. Fast. Smart. Inspiring. The man for minorities. Those other guys? Establishment. The guys who raised your taxes and lowered your services. Guys too busy prosecuting to practice leadership or to come up with new ideas. (Thinking about it, getting after Gansler is going to be a tougher than taking down Brown, but also less important.)
The obvious choice, the natural habitat of a Ken Ulman, as it were, is somewhere in Columbia, preferably somewhere something cool/big/impressive is happening. It’s the O’Malley in Patterson Park choice, if without the clean-up of crime. If CA could ever get uncorked, a revitalized Symphony Woods would be ideal- but likely not enough is going to be moving to make it the right choice when the announcement is made.
(Two [lengthy]asides on Symphony Woods here. First: I suppose you could set a stage in the current Woods, flanked by renderings of the Woods as they are to be, and conceivably make it work. But the simple fact is the current Woods are an uninteresting, rather ghostly and depressing place to be. The place is a black hole for excitement outside of Merriweather when it’s rocking. That alone is enough to preclude it from the short list. I honestly wonder how opponents to a redeveloped park sleep at night. What do they think they are defending? I rarely use religious terms, but I do think the stubborn and unthinking opposition, determined to relegate Columbia to a dying status, is a sin, in the very basic sense of the word. If successful, they consign Columbia to increasing irrelevance and a slow death. Opponents to development who present no reasonable alternative or new idea (No-Growth, they were once called) are more tied to a calcified irrational partisanship than they are to building a better Columbia. And here’s the worst thing: they cannot be reasoned with because of their pride. Having staked an identity to a certain position, they will not bend. They can only be brushed aside. And I hope they are. Second: as much as I like the plan -imagine a place where I could bring kids on a sunny day?!?!- I hate the name. “Inner Arbor”? “Hey, let’s go to the Inner ‘Arbor!” You sound like a cockney headed into Baltimore. “Arbor” in and of itself is a difficult word, hard to pronounce and, frankly, too reminiscent of a place where the rich fence out poachers. Two words beginning with vowels and the almost-but-not-quite-the-same endings of “-er” and “-or” makes for an unpleasant mouth feel. I’m no linguist, but is the name up for the debate? I can picture someone making an impassioned case based on confluence with the Inner Harbor, but really, that just leads to brand confusion and reeks of desperation. [“We want to be a real city too!”] I wouldn’t want to announce my candidacy while mush-mealing my way through a dozen enunciations of “Inner Arbor”. The name: that’s what we should be debating, not the idea. End of lengthy asides.)
And the tone of youthful, idea-driven insurgency should be set from the get-go. I don’t think an announcement in Columbia set against the backdrop of a torn-open mall or seventies-kitsch building is enough. Those obvious choices are too small, too provincial, too, well, obvious. And worse: they won’t help, not really. Howard County is already won (if it’s not, Ken has no business running). Will standing in front of a proposed Whole Foods impress anyone in the Whole Foods-rich Montgomery County? Is it going to bring in Baltimore voters or convince the Eastern Shore that there’s a new candidate worthy of a attention? No.
I see three alternatives for location, each of which would set its own thematic tone.
One: A new Howard County tech business like ELTA. Pros: People like jobs and technology. Emphasizes previous accomplishments that have obvious impact at the state level. Attracts attention from potential wealthy donors. Cons: Safe choice. Unexciting. Reads as corporate, buttoned-up, in the pocket of business. Easy to make military-industrial snipes.
Two: The University of Maryland campus. Pros: Burnishes ties to Maryland as a state. Great backdrop. Ties Ken to an emotional cornerstone of Marylanders. Potential for a crowd of excitable youth voters and honest energy. Provides easy grounding for speech, plus you get to end with a big “Go Terps!”. Emphasizes youth. Easy for media to get to and use as metaphor in stories (something not to be discounted). Cons: Kind of no-man’s land as far as a constituency or building a base. Possibility for lack of crowd. Difficult to bring in crowd of supporters. Easy for media to use as negative metaphor in stories.
Three: The City of Baltimore, introduced by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. I don’t know if Rawlings-Blake is going to make the obvious choice and endorse Brown (especially since she’ll be seeing more of O’Malley on the years to come), but if she could be turned, it would be huge for Ulman. Pros: Expansion of potential base from HoCo into Baltimore, a key area for Ulman. (Although most eyes are on the suburbs of DC, high turnout in Baltimore could be a hidden swing.) Very public endorsement from Rawlings-Blake is key in push against Brown’s base. Energy of the city. Easy to bring in crowd of supporters. Cons: Obvious attempt to expand base that could read as desperate or confusing. No real ties from Baltimore to Ken that I’m aware of. Potential to be seen as ignoring MoCo and rural Marylanders.
So where will the announcement take place, and what will the themes be? Smart money still says it’s happening within Howard County, but if I had a vote (spoiler alert: I do not) it would be in Baltimore or College Park. If the Ulman team wants to make this a race out of the gate, they’ll swing big. This is going to be fun.