Mayor clarifies remark linking Bush cuts, 9/11 attacks

February 10, 2005|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Faced with growing criticism that he was "irresponsible" and "over the top," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley sought yesterday to clarify his harsh rhetoric likening President Bush's proposed domestic spending cuts to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

As Republicans and fellow Democrats publicly rebuked him, the mayor went on a liberal radio program and tried to explain his comment, which has drawn coast-to-coast media attention and created a talk-show stir.

"What I said was, our city centers were attacked on Sept. 11," O'Malley said on The Al Franken Show, a national talk show on Air America Radio. "And the reason that America's cities were attacked was because terrorists were trying to harm our economies.

"And I said, three years later, these budget cuts would further weaken America's cities. We cannot expect America to be strong unless our cities are strong."

O'Malley appeared at the National Press Club in Washington Tuesday with a dozen other mayors and county executives to denounce the president's spending priorities. After several speakers sharply criticized a proposed $2 billion reduction in a popular community development program, O'Malley stepped up to the microphone.

"Back on September 11, terrorists attacked our metropolitan cores, two of America's great cities," the mayor said, according to accounts by the Associated Press and The Washington Post.

"Years later, we are given a budget proposal by our commander in chief, the president of the United States. And, with a budget ax, he is attacking America's cities. He is attacking our metropolitan core."

O'Malley, an up-and-coming star in the national Democratic Party, is often brash and outspoken. But the telegenic young mayor has gotten in trouble before for comments linking the president's policies and the nation's worst terrorist attacks. Last summer, at a fund-raiser for Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign, the mayor said he was "even more worried" about President Bush than about al-Qaida terrorists.

The Maryland Republican Party called O'Malley's latest remarks "bizarre." State GOP Chairman John M. Kane said the mayor, who has gubernatorial ambitions, is out of step with mainstream Democrats in Maryland and owes President Bush an apology.

A number of independent political observers and Democrats were also startled.

"It's one thing to be highly critical of the way Bush has left cities in the war on terrorism without adequate resources. That has given O'Malley a voice at the national level," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based polling company. "It's quite another to make a leap that the budget is causing damage equivalent to 9/11. That's a big leap and can cause serious harm to your credibility."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is also considering a gubernatorial bid next year, said the mayor's remarks overshadowed the point of the news conference.

"It hurt our efforts to get funding restored," said Duncan, who was at the meeting. "All the stories have been about him equating Bush with the terrorists, not about the community development grants. It's a shame we had to listen to that."

The state Democratic Party is standing behind O'Malley. Chairman Terry Lierman said that "those who know O'Malley understand how passionate he is" about trying to spare the city from devastating cuts.

Shareese DeLeaver, spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said O'Malley should devote more of his time to a city beset by failing schools and one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. She noted that the mayor traveled to Washington to denounce Bush and skipped a visit by first lady Laura Bush to Baltimore to praise the progress of an elementary school.

Sun staff writer Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

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