A state forum on disabilities segues into debate on city schools, funding

Candidates face off, briefly

Maryland votes 2006

September 06, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,sun reporter

In the closest Maryland's gubernatorial candidates have come to a debate, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. squared off yesterday at a forum on state disability issues and quickly turned to testy rhetoric when the discussion ranged to city schools and federal budget cuts.

For much of the 90-minute forum at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor Hotel in Baltimore, Ehrlich and O'Malley agreed on the need to improve public transportation, move institutionalized residents into community-based housing and expand health care for the mentally disabled - though neither offered specifics for reaching those goals.

But the discussion became more intense as O'Malley, a Democrat, repeatedly tried to link Ehrlich with the national Republican Party by blaming the Bush administration for cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, federal health insurance programs that can help the disabled. Ehrlich, O'Malley suggested, should have used his bully pulpit as governor to fight those reductions.

"We need a governor who will stand up to the ... cuts being shoved down the throat of state and local government," O'Malley said. "We can't have a governor who is silent in the face of huge cuts."

Ehrlich, who did not respond to the criticism directly, countered that the federal government had loosened the restrictions previously placed on Medicaid grants, allowing states more flexibility in spending the money they receive. Governors have no power over the federal budget, and Ehrlich tried to deflect the attack by talking about his own record on disabilities.

"I've heard a lot about ... how the federal government is the enemy," he said. "The federal government is not the enemy. In fact, with our administration, it's been the friend of many people in this room."

Ehrlich spent much of the forum discussing his accomplishments on disabilities, including the creation of a Cabinet-level agency headed by his running mate, Kristen Cox. Cox, who is legally blind, attended the event and filled in for Ehrlich after he left about 15 minutes early to attend a Cabinet meeting in Annapolis.

"It always feels like I'm coming home when I'm with this crowd," Cox said. "At the end of the day, this is about track records."

Organized by the Maryland Disabilities Forum, the event's format allowed candidates to respond to questions posed by a moderator and members of the 200-person audience.

John Sorensen, co-director of the Cross Disability Rights Coalition, said his organization opposes the institutionalization of any disabled people, but he declined to elaborate on which candidate he felt better answered the questions on that issue and others posed yesterday. That judgment, he said, would be reserved for his members.

"I think [the forum] was helpful," said Sorensen, 41, who has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. "We'll tell them what the candidates said and ... let them make the decision for themselves."

The event became feistier and took on a debate-like quality as it progressed. Late in the discussion, Ehrlich said it was "an embarrassment" that a federal judge ruled last year that the city school system's special education program needed more oversight. The court authorized the state to send managers to oversee eight school system departments that affect special education, including finance and instruction.

Baltimore schools are managed by a board whose members are appointed by both O'Malley and Ehrlich.

Before O'Malley had a chance to respond, Ehrlich left the forum for the Cabinet meeting. At his next opportunity at the microphone, O'Malley defended city schools, noting improved test scores and graduation rates. He suggested Ehrlich should be proud of the progress made rather than "taking cheap potshots before he runs out the door."

More aggressive talk from both candidates came as the campaign turns the corner into the post-Labor Day period, when many experts believe voters start paying more attention to statewide races. The discussion also came on the same day that O'Malley aired a new television advertisement that attacked Ehrlich on education and other issues.

The advertisement asks whether, "we can really trust Bob Ehrlich on education" and ends with a picture of Ehrlich standing next to Bush.

Though both candidates appeared eager to discuss issues yesterday, neither campaign would disclose the status of negotiations for possible gubernatorial debates. An O'Malley aide said the mayor's campaign has proposed at least seven debates - five between the gubernatorial candidates and two for running mates. Both campaigns declined to offer more details.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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