O'Malley delivers rebuttal to president's radio address

In Democrats' response, mayor criticizes Bush on homeland security

January 26, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

During a pair of back-to-back radio speeches yesterday, President Bush called for more tax cuts to stimulate the economy and Mayor Martin O'Malley condemned Bush's failure to provide money to protect America's cities from terrorist attacks.

"I am the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland - a major city in our country's economy that, like every city and town in America, has been left virtually defenseless by our federal government's failure to fund homeland defense," O'Malley said in an address broadcast on WBAL-AM locally and on hundreds of other stations nationally.

The Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, took the unusual step of picking O'Malley - co-chairman of a U.S. Conference of Mayors' committee on homeland defense - to give his party's response to the president weekly radio speech.

The Democratic response is normally rotated among members of Congress and governors. Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes delivered the Democratic rebuttal in June.

But for yesterday morning's broadcast, Daschle selected O'Malley because many recognize him as a talented politician who has spoken out forcefully on issues of funding for homeland defense, said Ranit Schmelzer, a spokeswoman for Daschle.

In his address, Bush provided a preview of the budget priorities that he will present to Congress next month. He said he would call for cutting taxes on stock dividends and making drugs affordable for seniors on Medicare.

"Our nation faces many great challenges all at once," Bush said. "The war on terror is an ongoing priority of our nation. We will take every measure that is necessary to protect the American people from terrorist groups and outlaw regimes."

Although he called for more tax cuts, Bush also suggested that the federal government won't approve much new domestic spending for homeland defense or anything else: "Spending restraint is important to economic growth and job creation. And it is critical to reducing the deficit caused by war and national emergency and recession."

Bush and O'Malley have very different speaking styles.

The president's voice came over the AM radio yesterday sounding low, calm, steady and confident. He spoke in short, simple sentences, avoiding ornament or metaphor. He repeated the word "America" eight times in four minutes, betraying a hint of Texas twang that flattened the word to "Amurrica."

"The world depends on America's strength and purpose, and we will meet our responsibilities for peace," Bush said.

O'Malley's voice was higher, a tenor that followed the president's baritone. And his tone crackled with sarcasm, anger and outrage as he conjured up images of Washington burning and firefighters holding bingo matches to pay for their equipment.

"Back during the War of 1812, while Washington burned to our south, the people of Baltimore - without any help from their federal government - repelled the British invasion, and secured our country's freedom at Fort McHenry," O'Malley said.

"Mr. President ... please remember that we are still willing to do our part in the defense of the Star-Spangled Banner. But this time we need our federal government to stand beside us," O'Malley said.

Baltimore has spent about $11 million on homeland defense since Sept. 11, 2001, paying for emergency drills, security for government buildings, anti-terrorism planning and police overtime. But the city has received only $1 million in reimbursements from the federal government, which O'Malley says isn't enough.

"Our nation cannot fund America's homeland security on local property taxes and fire hall bingo proceeds," O'Malley said. "Your neglect of homeland defense funding has relegated `the common defense' to yet another unfunded federal mandate for already cash-strapped cities - cities that are still reeling from federal and state tax cuts."

O'Malley recorded the speech Friday afternoon at the offices of WBAL radio in Woodberry. In a stuffy, cramped recording studio, with his deputy mayor, Michael Enright, at his left elbow and five cameras in his face, O'Malley rolled up his sleeves and scribbled a few last-minute corrections in his text.

"Testing one, two," O'Malley began, leaning toward the microphone. "For a good time, call 396- ... " he joked, giving the number of the mayor's office.

He read his four-minute speech three times, rehearsing it twice and asking for a glass of water before the final take. "Are there violin strains you can put in behind this?" he asked the studio manager. "Should I say, `And bless our troops at home and abroad'? Or is that too corny?"

He decided to add a variation, "May God protect our troops abroad and at home," to conclude his remarks.

But he appeared to become nervous before the final recording, which he knew would be broadcast nationally. "Breathe, breathe, breathe," he reminded himself.

Afterward, he chatted with reporters in a hallway.

O'Malley said he felt it a "real honor" to be asked by the national Democratic Party to take on the president in the radio address. He reflected that only a few years ago, he was speaking out only about the issues facing his Northeast Baltimore City Council district.

"To be able to give the Democratic response at such a critical time in our nation's history. ... We are a long way from City Council, Dorothy."

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