O'Malley to address National Press Club today

Mayor invited to speak on homeland security

August 02, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

As Mayor Martin O'Malley has experienced over the past year, attaining a national profile - especially on the critical topic of homeland security - can cut both ways for a local politician with sights set on higher office.

The mayor's opinions on how cities can best protect themselves against terrorism has landed O'Malley national speaking and leadership roles on the issue. But his frequent criticism of President Bush on the topic also has resulted in public relations debacles after he twice related Bush policies to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Today O'Malley is set to return to the national stage with a homeland security speech to the National Press Club in Washington. Whether the prestigious speaking slot - to be broadcast live on C-Span and many public radio stations - serves to heighten or hurt his standing on the issue depends on what he says.

But with the campaign for Maryland governor unofficially under way, political experts say the exposure will only help build the mayor's name recognition and attract national Democratic donors looking to spend in 2006 races.

"It's free media," said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "At this stage in the nonelection, it's name recognition, name recognition, name recognition."

O'Malley's detractors from both parties have obviously taken notice of the mayor's ability to garner national attention and are already delivering their lines of attack by saying the mayor attends more to his image than to his city.

But O'Malley officials, supporters with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and a National Press Club official say the speech has nothing to do with politics and is testament to the mayor's leadership on the issue.

The mayor did not seek out a spot on the National Press Club's luncheon speakers' circuit, which this year has featured such notables as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and actress Angelina Jolie. He was invited.

Expert on security

Shawn Bullard, a member of the club's speakers committee, said the topic of what role local governments play in homeland security is timely because of the London bombings, and that he believes O'Malley is an expert on the issue.

O'Malley's speech will detail how cities and their regions must cooperate to develop and pay for strategies that he says the federal government is failing to finance.

The mayor's leadership on such issues in the Baltimore region led the U.S. Conference of Mayors to appoint him chairman of the group's homeland security taskforce in 2003.

O'Malley also caught the attention of the national Democratic Party. During the presidential campaign last year, Sen. John Kerry invited O'Malley to speak on the topic in Wisconsin, and the mayor landed a speaking slot during the Democratic National Convention.

Neither speech garnered much national press - unlike the mayor's comments at a June 2004 Baltimore fundraiser for Kerry. At that event, the mayor said: "I remember after the attacks of Sept. 11, as mayor of the city, I was very, very worried about al-Qaida and still am. But I'm even more worried about the actions and inaction of the Bush administration."

Earlier this year, at a National Press Club event, O'Malley appeared with several mayors and made a similar comparison between Bush and terrorists.

"Back on Sept. 11, terrorists attacked our metropolitan cores, two of America's great cities," O'Malley said at the Feb. 8 event. "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 was widely criticized for the comments.

"It's good to hear the mayor actually wants to talk about security rather than hide in some undisclosed location and hurl political firebombs at our president in a time of war," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party.

"He should be more concerned with the security of the citizens of Baltimore and rising violent crime rates rather than lofty political rhetoric at the National Press Club," Miller said.

An aide for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan also took a shot at the mayor's speech today. Duncan, like O'Malley, is widely expected to run for the Democratic Party's nomination for governor next year.

`A political event'

"Clearly the mayor is treating this as a political event and promoting it as a political event," said Jody Couser, Duncan's press secretary.

They point to an e-mail from O'Malley's campaign promoting the press club event, which is sold out.

O'Malley said his detractors miss the point by saying he has politicized his efforts regarding homeland security. "[Homeland security] is the job of a mayor," he said. "And of every county executive in every major metropolitan area."

He said he was attacked for his comments because he pointed out the federal government's failures to adequately secure cities from the type of terrorism experienced in London.

"When you put yourself out there you get shot at - rhetorically," O'Malley said. "When you're out in front of an issue where our federal government is failing badly, they do push back."

James G. Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said O'Malley needs to stake out a national profile on homeland security because being mayor of a "declining, rust-belt city" does not provide many accomplishments to brag about when running for governor. He said today's speech will help O'Malley improve his delivery on the sensitive and important topic.

"He needs this kind of press," Gimpel said. "If you're going to stick your foot in your mouth it's probably better to do it earlier in the campaign than later."

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