- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

BALTIMORE — Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley clashed yesterday in two debates that frequently dwelled on the city’s crime problems and poorly performing schools, despite the mayor’s attempts to shift the focus to the governor.

“We have made tremendous progress in our city in recent years,” said Mr. O’Malley, the Democratic nominee for governor. “But we can all make more progress if we had a governor that practiced the politics of bringing people together instead of the politics of division.”

He promised to practice “the politics of hope and the politics of dreams and the politics that say we are all in this together.”

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican seeking re-election, responded: “I don’t know what all that means.”

“That’s the leadership style of whining and blaming others for your failures,” continued Mr. Ehrlich, pointing to the mayor’s past criticism of Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, the City Council and President Bush for impeding the city.

Mr. O’Malley has also blamed the city’s crime problems on a “revolving door” at the state’s prisons. “The problem that every jurisdiction in our state faces is not a lack of courage by our local police,” he said. “Governor, if you want to do something about the dangerous position that our officers are put in, why don’t you do something about your broken parole and probation system?”

The moderator at the debate, which was videotaped at WJZ-TV (Channel 13) in Baltimore, did not allow Mr. Ehrlich to respond. The debate will be aired Monday at 7 p.m. by the station and statewide by Maryland Public Television.

Mr. Ehrlich did get to respond during the next debate, which was aired live last night by Maryland Public Television and WBAL-TV (Channel 11) in Baltimore and in many ways duplicated the first encounter.

“Talk about revolving doors,” Mr. Ehrlich said. The mayor has had “seven police commissioners in seven years. … Not a whole lot of people are lining up to take criminal justice advice from you, Mr. Mayor.”

The candidates’ disdain for each other was evident at both debates, which likely were their last face-to-face confrontations before the Nov. 7 election.

Mr. Ehrlich has said he does not want to debate after mid-October so that he can concentrate on campaigning. Their two previous debates were not televised.

Within hours of the first debate’s conclusion, both candidates claimed victory.

The Ehrlich campaign said the governor “convincingly demonstrated that Maryland is better off today than it was four years ago.”

The O’Malley campaign said the mayor won by “showcasing new ideas for progress for Maryland’s hardworking families.”

In both debates, Mr. O’Malley frequently accused the governor of “selling out” working-class families to the profit of “powerful and wealthy special interests.”

Mr. Ehrlich called the charges “classic class warfare” and repeatedly dismissed the mayor as a political opportunist who distorts the facts, shifts the blame and makes politically expedient decisions.

“Get the facts right,” he told Mr. O’Malley. “Nobody is buying your drive-by attacks.”

Mr. Ehrlich touted his record in the debates, noting reforms to the state’s troubled juvenile-justice and prison systems.

He also reminded voters that he inherited a $2 billion budget deficit and turned it into a $2 billion budget surplus, all the while spending more on public schools and blocking Democratic lawmakers’ attempts to increase state income taxes or sales taxes.

“We were agents of change,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “We were given a mandate by the people of Maryland to effectuate change in Annapolis. Maryland is in far better shape today than it was four years ago.”

Baltimore’s education and crime problems have put Mr. O’Malley’s campaign on the defensive, but the mayor continues to lead Mr. Ehrlich in most polls.

Mr. O’Malley says there has been a 40 percent reduction in violent crime in Baltimore since he took office in 1999, but the crime statistics are questionable and the city’s homicide rate remains among the highest in the country.

He also points to rising test scores in the public elementary schools. Mr. Ehrlich cites the high dropout rate and 11 middle and high schools that have recorded failing test scores for nine consecutive years.

The candidates also sparred over taxes, the environment, transportation and energy policies.

On nearly every issue, Mr. O’Malley said the governor sided with special interests, including insurance companies on health care and power companies on energy prices.

Mr. O’Malley faulted the governor for increasing taxes, including state property taxes, higher tuition at state universities and a “flush tax” for environmental improvements to wastewater treatment plants.

Mr. Ehrlich defended his tax record, saying he pulled the state out of a deficit without increasing taxes and targeted fees to pay for major road projects and to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

He pointed out that Mr. O’Malley raised the city’s income, property and energy taxes. “Your record is clear,” he told the mayor.

“There is no reason for a general tax increase at any time in the immediate or intermediate future,” Mr. Ehrlich said, repeating his pledge from four years ago.

Mr. O’Malley said he agreed that a tax increase was not needed, but also said the state’s structural deficit persists while the city budget is truly balanced.

“The difference in our budgets is, I pay for you,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “Without us, you are done.”

He pointed out the state pays for the majority of the city’s transportation, social services and education budgets.

Still, attention remains focused on Baltimore’s troubles with schools and crime.

The public schools issue re-emerged last week with four days of violent incidents, including a 14-year-old boy being shot in the back Friday at a football game at Frederick Douglass High School.

The violence started Monday when about 100 students from Digital Harbor High School gathered near the school to watch a fistfight between two 15-year-old girls and some of the spectators smashed car windshields.

At Pimlico Middle School, a 14-year-old girl was hospitalized Wednesday after a 13-year-old student stabbed her in the arm with a kitchen knife. That same day, students were locked down at Holabird Elementary School for more than four hours after a shooting nearby.

An 8-year-old boy brought a .22-caliber handgun Thursday to Grove Park Elementary School, and police say another 8-year-old boy accidentally fired the weapon. No one was injured.

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