Baltimore's election season takes to the airwaves today, when Mayor Martin O'Malley's first two campaign commercials portray the heavily favored incumbent as a regular guy and a stately politician.
In the first 30-second spot, O'Malley, wearing a hard hat and wielding a hammer, is helping to rebuild a vacant house. In the other, he is striking poses of a distinguished, suit-wearing leader whose political priorities seek to protect Baltimore from terrorism.
Political commercials are one of the most costly, and effective, items in any campaign. They project what accomplishments matter most to a candidate, and they preview what direction an incumbent intends to lead the city if re-elected.
O'Malley does not speak in either ad, produced by Dixon/Davis Media Group of Washington. Instead, staged action such as O'Malley pounding a nail or orchestrating emergency workers is set to voice-over narration reciting his accomplishments and leadership traits.
"The foundation of our city's comeback begins with public safety and a commitment to make every neighborhood an even safer place to call home," the narrator states. The second ad begins by describing O'Malley as "a leader, preparing Baltimore for homeland security and emergency preparedness."
Both sign off with O'Malley's slogan: "Because better isn't good enough." The cost to place the 30-second ads could range from $50 to $3,800. Each is expected to air five or six times per week - or more, said Kimberlin Love, the campaign's spokeswoman.
O'Malley's campaign intends to roll out a series of commercials, some of which will not feature the mayor so prominently and others that will show him speaking. Campaign officials said they had not determined how many commercials would be produced before the Sept. 9 Democratic primary.
Such an extensive ad buy may appear as overkill for an incumbent who most political experts say holds a wide lead over his competitors. But O'Malley said yesterday that he won't be complacent.
"You have to run the ads," he said. "Elections are when we pause to consider if things are getting better and whether we're heading down the path that restores hope ... It's a very important factor in a Democracy."
Another important factor is money. His near $3 million campaign treasury far surpasses all of his competitors. Andrey Bundley, O'Malley's chief rival and principal of Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy, recently released an Aug. 5 report showing his campaign has a $23,033 balance.
"Essentially, we're broke," Bundley said. "We don't have the money to run TV ads. We're not trying to buy the vote."
Bundley, who will debate O'Malley Friday, called the commercials' claims of reducing crime "disingenuous."
The Friends of O'Malley campaign did not release figures on how much the commercials cost to produce, but political experts said such commercials typically range between $12,000 and $18,000, and sometimes far more.
"The real costs are in the `buy,'" said Arthur W. Murphy, a political consultant with Politicom Creative, referring to the price paid to stations for running the ads. "Running early morning ads is cheaper because fewer people watch TV at that time."
Rates can range anywhere from $50 for a 30-second spot on a local morning news program to $3,800 for a fixed spot during a popular national show such as Friends. Campaign finance records from 1999 show that O'Malley paid $93,222 to the same production firm, listed as Dixon Media Group at the time, for radio, television, newspaper and billboard ads.
Each of the two commercials makes several claims. The first commercial, which O'Malley said was staged, portrays the mayor at a construction site.
It makes three claims:
"Baltimore is leading the nation in the reduction of violent crime."
This has become the O'Malley mantra. Reducing crime was his 1999 campaign's No. 1 priority.
The city has reduced the incidence of serious crimes by 25.98 percent over the past three years, best in the nation. Still, last year, the city ranked No. 2 among the country's 25 largest cities in the rate of violent crimes per 100,000. That was an improvement from 2001, when the city had the worst per capita crime rate for homicides, aggravated assaults, rapes and robberies, according to FBI data.
"We're freeing our communities of drug use with new substance abuse facilities."
Since O'Malley took office, the city has opened five large-scale drug treatment centers. One residential treatment center, Gaudenzia Inc., is the first to be built in the city in 30 years, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner. For all the progress, Baltimore continues to have one of the worst drug problems in the nation.
"And reclaiming thousands of vacant properties."
The mayor launched Project 5000 to acquire or clear title for 5,000 vacant or abandoned homes. To date, the city has attained 2,115 homes. Vacant and boarded houses, however, remain one of the most hotly contested issues throughout all city campaigns this year.