An all-too-convenient election year demon

September 15, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

The disdainful hoots rose up from parts of the audience, a couple hundred members of a group that no candidate wants to cross - the AARP. If there's one thing I learned living in retiree-rich Florida for some six years, it's that you don't want to cross these people if they're on their way to early-bird dinner, much less their polling places in November.

What prompted the groans, the sarcastic mutters of "Oh please," the outright scorn? Did someone threaten to privatize Social Security? Or propose an even more complicated Medicare prescription drug plan? Or - horrors! - demand that bingo earnings be taxed?

No, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley was talking about how the city has improved on his watch.

Many of the seniors at yesterday's AARP-sponsored debate between the gubernatorial candidates, O'Malley and Gov. Robert Ehrlich, weren't buying it. O'Malley can quote all the stats he wants - from improving school test scores to declining violent crime - but "the city" is one of those bogeymen that crop up during election years.

Especially in a suburban crowd - the debate was held in a hotel in Timonium - a candidate just has to say "the city" and, en masse, people will make like The Scream, hands framing mouths making perfect capital O's of existentialist terror.

Cities are all-too-convenient demons. Whether it's President Ford telling New York to drop dead - as the tabloid headline put it, when he refused federal financial assistance to that bankrupt city in 1975 - or President Reagan's decrying that "Chicago welfare queen," politicians love to portray cities as cesspools of corruption, crime and mismanagement.

I live in the city, but that's only one reason its demonization drives me crazy. It's not that I think Baltimore is this urban utopia, or that it's not a legitimate issue in this campaign. We should talk about the city in this election, when one of the candidates is its mayor. O'Malley rightfully should be judged on the city he has run - and that means he has to take the blame for what happens within its boundaries, as well as any credit that comes around. But Ehrlich is the governor of the entire state of Maryland - does he get a pass on whatever happens in the city?

Seems like when I figure out my income taxes every year, I send them to both the city and the state. I don't see how you live around here and not cross city and county lines as a natural course of daily life. Maybe you live in the suburbs and work in the city; maybe you live in the city and shop in the suburbs. And yet, come election time, the city is suddenly the enemy, this Third World island.

I know I'm one of the luckier city residents - my house is in a relatively safe part of town, and the only time I've had to call the police is for minor property crimes. But I'm well aware of what the murder rate is, how abysmal many of the schools are and how, as a recent study showed, for black men living in cities like Baltimore, their life expectancy is among the lowest in America. I don't dismiss any of that just because it doesn't match my experience of the city.

But how do you quantify a city's merits? As this campaign demonstrates, you can't: O'Malley says crime is down; Ehrlich says he's manipulated the figures. O'Malley points to school test scores that have gone up in recent years; Ehrlich points to how low they remain compared to elsewhere in the state.

It went that way, back and forth, before the lively crowd, which cheered the audience member who called for an end to the candidates' negative campaigning but seemed to relish the spectacle of them banging away at one another. (The poor moderator, sitting in between them in a space the size of maybe your average sofa - he surely would have gotten caught in any crossfire that strayed beyond the verbal.)

The AARP debate probably didn't change anyone's mind - each of the audience members I spoke to had already settled on a candidate - and how they view the city.

Ruth Adams, 90, of Essex, is with Ehrlich. "I like the way he's run Maryland," she said. "O'Malley's a city man."

"We're in Bush territory here," said Leonard Saunders, 80, who lives in Baltimore and supports O'Malley. "These people don't even come to Baltimore City."

It comes down to perception, however it's formed, be it personal experience, what you hear, what you choose to hear.

"I think crime has gone up no matter what [O'Malley] says," said Gary Watts, a 71-year-old Baltimore resident and Ehrlich supporter. "I used to not have to lock my door. Now, I won't even go to the corner store without locking it."

As it turns out, I live not far from Watts, and have never not locked my doors. Which, of course, probably says more about us and our respective trust in humanity, than the city we both live in.

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