O'Malley trips over his own hyperbole

August 27, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

What must grate on Martin O'Malley's critics is this: Baltimore has been a better city since he became mayor. Supporters of the incumbent governor, Robert Ehrlich, certainly can argue over how much progress Baltimore has made during the past six years - and whether it would have made more progress had, say, Ehrlich been mayor - but they are hard-pressed to prove that the city has flat-lined or that it's worse than during the long, painful and moribund Schmoke years.

And yet, that doesn't stop them from trying.

In a letter to supporters in June, Ehrlich wrote, "We are seeing [school] test scores rise in every single jurisdiction in the state except Baltimore city."


The other day on television, his running mate, Kristen Cox, said: "State test scores across the state have increased in every jurisdiction but for Baltimore City."

She was wrong, too, and Cox looked particularly foolish because she made the comment just as the state released the results of last year's ninth-grade proficiency tests in algebra, government and biology.

Turns out, the pass rate for students increased in every county and in Baltimore. In the city, the percentage of students passing algebra alone was up 15 points.

Oh, and the high school graduation rate rose slightly last year from 58.99 to 60.63 percent, giving the city the best rate in at least the past decade. It's not great - in fact, still the lowest in the state - but it's better.

That's what must bug Ehrlich and Cox. They really can't demonstrate that things - the big things, like education and crime and drug addiction - are worse than they were before 1999, the year O'Malley was elected. The city continues to have problems and chronic failings, many associated with the highest concentration of poverty in the state. But by most measures, there has been progress.

And yet - here's what's bizarre - even with all that, O'Malley still manages to provide material for his critics with what appears to be a tendency - some might call it pathology - to exaggerate moderate success. O'Malley repeatedly claimed that police had reduced violent crime by "nearly 40 percent" during his administration, a rate outpacing every other big city in the nation.

But that claim invited lots of press scrutiny and an audit. Many experts said O'Malley's was an inflated assessment based on some bad statistics. The city's FBI consultant said this year that the drop in violent crime was closer to 23.5 percent.

The way most citizens look at things, a 23.5 percent drop deserves a Morgan State chorus of hallelujahs, three marching bands, a fireworks display and free snowballs for everybody.

But instead of throwing a party to celebrate 23.5 percent, the O'Malley administration had to defend his "nearly 40 percent" claim, fighting off Jayne Miller and accusations of cooking the books.

O'Malley also made a mistake, however admirable his ambition, in pledging to bring Baltimore's annual homicide number - chronically more than 300 all through the Schmoke years - not only to below 200, but to 175.

Never happened.

The number has not fallen below 250, and in 2005 there were 269 homicides.

Instead of O'Malley crowing about a significant reduction, relative to the depressing Schmoke years, his opponents get to say he missed the mark.

On education, the mayor has not been a hands-on player. That's in large measure because of the way the city-state partnership on schools was set up two years before his election.

But as this gubernatorial campaign drew closer, O'Malley got more involved - the school system's financial crisis forced him to - and started taking credit for gains in student achievement. In some instances, he again seemed to be exaggerating. He called city students' test-score improvements "one of the biggest turnaround stories of any urban school system in the United States of America."

You make claims like that, you invite scrutiny and criticism. It's not smart to make such statements because it's not necessary. O'Malley had enough to offer voters in the way of progress - the moderate kind that reasonable adults can appreciate in a school system that has been problem-plagued for so long.

Hyperbole makes people uncomfortable. It gives me a rash.

Why not just point out that, during the O'Malley years, elementary school kids did better, and that graduation rates rose modestly? Isn't that enough for now? Giving O'Malley's staff the benefit of the doubt, numbers and statistics can be a pile of split hairs, and some of this stuff probably comes from sloppiness in the haste to tell a good story.

The latest foolishness showed up Friday in an article by Sun reporter Doug Donovan. Here's the headline: "O'Malley ad overstates jobs data."

A new O'Malley campaign commercial says: "People are moving back to a city that's creating thousands of jobs, reducing violent crime, and improving their schools and test scores."


The city has lost, not gained, thousands of jobs during O'Malley's time, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The city has more employed residents than it did two years ago, and that's a good thing, but their jobs aren't necessarily in the city. (We're actually outsourcing our people.)

So you don't get to say that you've been the mayor of a "city that's creating thousands of jobs."

Instead, you look like you're stretching again, when you don't have to.

And your opponent, who doesn't have much else to throw, gets to say you exaggerate.

And the voters, even those who support you, probably wonder what's up with all this.


Hear Dan Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio (1090 AM) and read his blog at baltimore sun.com/rodricks. Ex-offenders seeking help in finding jobs or drug addicts seeking help in arranging treatment should call 410-332-6166.

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