Ehrlich ad strikes at O'Malley's anti-crime record

Two new negative spots come after governor says such ads show campaign in decline

Campaign Ad watch

September 30, 2006

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. released two negative ads about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley yesterday, attacking him on crime control, the city schools and other issues. Both are playing in the Baltimore media market.

What the ads say: The first ad focuses on crime. With ominous music in the background and night scenes of Baltimore on the screen, a male announcer mimics the opening credits to the TV show Law and Order, saying, "In Baltimore's criminal justice system, there is talk, and there are facts."

The narrator says that O'Malley failed in his promise to reduce homicides to 175 a year and that last year, 269 people were killed in the city. That makes Baltimore "more deadly than New York or Washington, D.C.," the announcer says.

"O'Malley was caught manipulating crime statistics to make the city look safer, and he's gone through seven police commissioners," the announcer says.

"O'Malley promised and failed. How can we trust him now?" the announcer says.

The second ad features a group of people airing grievances about O'Malley, all on the theme that he keeps asking for "more time" to fix the city's problems.

The speakers say the mayor has asked for more time to fix the city's crime rate and to bring the city's schools under control.

"And when the offer was made to help troubled schools right away, right away, O'Malley said no. He just needed more time," one speaker says.

"More time? More time for what?" a man says.

The facts: When O'Malley first campaigned for mayor in 1999, he pledged to bring the annual number of homicides below 175 after a decade in which it had never been lower than 300. Homicides have dropped since O'Malley took office, but they have never been below the 2002 figure of 253.

In February, The Sun reported on questions about whether O'Malley has exaggerated the city's progress on reducing violent crime since he took office in December 1999.

His campaign Web site states that he has reduced violent crime in Baltimore by "nearly 40 percent" between 1999 and 2004. But the violent-crime statistics for 1999 were significantly increased in an audit in 2000 that O'Malley commissioned. The audit found that the Police Department under former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had been incorrectly classifying crimes as lesser offenses than those counted as violent crime -- homicides, aggravated assaults, robberies and rapes.

Before the audit, violent-crime numbers in Baltimore in 1999 were that decade's lowest. After the audit, 1999 became one of the city's most violent years in two decades, reversing a four-year trend of declining violence, records show.

The city's FBI consultant on the 1999 audit and several criminologists told The Sun that it is more accurate to compare pre-audited figures for 1999 with the 2004 statistics, which did not undergo the same thorough audit. Compared with pre-audited figures, violent crime would be down 23.5 percent between 1999 and 2004. Compared with post-audit numbers, the reduction would be 37.4 percent.

Ehrlich's ad quotes a Washington Post article to back up the notion that O'Malley has "cooked the books." The article actually says that the mayor's foes accuse him of doing so but that "to date, no evidence has surfaced of a systemic manipulation of crime statistics."

The mayor's campaign points out that the state police under Ehrlich have signed off on the accuracy of city crime statistics every year.

O'Malley officials have said the accusation that the mayor has gone through seven commissioners in seven years is inaccurate. They say O'Malley has had four commissioners -- Ronald L. Daniels, Edward T. Norris, Kevin P. Clark and Leonard D. Hamm. Ehrlich's campaign is counting the three top police commanders who ran the department during transition periods.

Analysis: Ehrlich has run negative ads before in this campaign, but they generally included some positive elements about his own campaign. The new ads feature the sort of "spooky music and grainy pictures" Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele warned voters about in an ad for his U.S. Senate campaign in which he predicted he would be attacked for hating puppies.

As recently as two weeks ago, Ehrlich said such a strategy was indicative of a campaign on the ropes. "Which candidate has gone completely negative?" Ehrlich asked supporters at the Frederick County Fair, referring to O'Malley. "That's a great barometer because he has nothing to sell."

Andrew A. Green and Doug Donovan

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