BALTIMORE — The city’s persistent violent-crime problem is an obstacle to Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s run for governor, but it doesn’t have to be the Achilles’ heel of his campaign, says a veteran of Maryland political races.
“I think it is a problem for the mayor because he came into office talking about the murder rate and the crime rate and said he was going to make Baltimore a safer place,” said political strategist Julius Henson, who has worked for Maryland Democrats and Republicans. “There is nothing he can point to that he has done.”
Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, won the mayor’s race in 1999, campaigning on a pledge to lower the annual homicide totals to 175, but has never achieved the goal. The number of slayings have topped 250 every year he has been in office.
As of Friday, the Baltimore Police Department reported 244 homicides, compared with 259 at the same time last year. Police recorded 278 homicides in 2004, up from 270 in 2003.
Baltimore also was ranked the second most dangerous big city in the United States this year, up from No. 3 last year, according to Morgan Quitno Press , a Lawrence, Kan.-based company that publishes the annual rankings based on FBI crime data.
Only Detroit was more dangerous than Baltimore among cities with populations greater than 500,000. Baltimore was more dangerous than the District, which ranked third, according to the report.
Mr. O’Malley counters the grim assessment by touting the same FBI crime statistics that show violent crime in Baltimore has decreased about 37 percent since he took office, despite a 4 percent increase in violent crime last year.
“People give Martin credit for having the courage to tackle the difficult problem of violent crime in Baltimore,” O’Malley campaign manager Jonathan Epstein said.
Nationally, violent crime has been on the decrease for 13 years, dropping 1.2 percent last year and 24 percent since 1995, according to the FBI.
Still, a state Democratic Party official recently acknowledged Mr. O’Malley’s vulnerability on his crime-fighting record in the Democratic primary race against Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan or in the general election facing incumbent Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.
“He clearly has to recognize that the governor and others are going to be talking about [Baltimore crime], and he is going to have to face them head-on,” the official said.
When the list of most dangerous cities was announced last week, Mr. Duncan said he was “disheartened” to learn of Baltimore’s high ranking and that he thinks the city’s crime woes can best be addressed through education reform — a cornerstone of his campaign.
“For me, the solution begins and ends with education,” Mr. Duncan said.
“If you want to reduce crime, create opportunity and lift a community up, you must put education first. That is what I have done as county executive, and it is what I will do as governor. It is what we need to do in Baltimore and across the state of Maryland.”
Regardless of the level of danger on Baltimore’s streets, Mr. Henson said, the mayor’s opponents will have to make the city’s violence a political liability that sticks.
“It also hinges on Duncan’s effectiveness in pointing the finger at O’Malley and saying: ‘Your whole administration was a failure,’ ” Mr. Henson said. “Should [Baltimore crime] be an Achilles’ heel for the O’Malley campaign? Not if Duncan can’t capitalize on it.”
“I haven’t seen him do that yet,” he said. “The O’Malley people will move the ball and talk about other things.”