Wanted: a gubernatorial candidate with ideas

October 22, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

We turn now to the new TV drama Law and Order: Political Intent.

Note to viewers: We've had a role reversal, a switching - not of cops and robbers, but of Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives.

In this year's race for governor, the leading law-and-order candidate turns out to be the Democrat, Mayor Martin O'Malley. He charges his Republican opponent, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., with releasing a stream of dangerous criminals from prison.

Excuse me? This is the Republican who's being accused of being soft on crime by the Democrat? Yes and yes. And that's just half the story.

Mr. Ehrlich asserts that Mr. O'Malley is rounding up loiterers - many of them young black men - and jailing them on the theory that, innocent as they may be, they're about to commit a crime.

What's up with this?

It's not so complicated.

Mr. Ehrlich believes his opponent, the mayor of Baltimore, is vulnerable on the crime issue. Hence a big effort to tar him as overreaching and ineffective. Knowing such a charge was coming, Mr. O'Malley tackles Mr. Ehrlich on the parole issue as a counteroffensive. He's trying to blunt the governor's attack by levying one of his own.

Mr. O'Malley has been unable to keep his promise of lowering the annual murder toll to 175, though he has brought the number down from 340 or so to about 275.

For some time, moreover, the mayor has refocused his claims of success on reduction of violent crime, a relatively easier case to make.

Mr. Ehrlich attacks this point as well. One television commercial says Mr. O'Malley cooked the books on violent crime, claiming a steeper reduction than he has achieved. The mayor claims a 40 percent drop. Others say it's more like 23 percent. The mayor could have said, "Violent crime is down," and his opponent would have said, "But not enough."

Mr. Ehrlich has enlisted William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., the defense lawyer and former judge, to make the questionable arrest charge on the radio. Mayor O'Malley counters on TV with the assistance of James T. Smith Jr., a former judge who is now Baltimore County executive, and James N. Robey, a former Howard County police chief and now county executive.

The TV commercials on this subject present the opposing candidate in a grim-faced photograph a single step up from the wanted posters you see in post offices. Each commercial ends by asking who can be trusted to tell the truth about crime and crime suppression.

But there's a more important question, one you're not likely to hear in a commercial: Which candidate, if elected, is more likely to find an antidote to the venomous atmosphere - and to pay for its implementation?

Mr. O'Malley's numbers, cooked or uncooked, represent progress. But not enough progress. His approach, including the zero-tolerance for loitering, has not worked sufficiently well. He might argue that crime would be worse without his concentration on the subject. It could be worse, of course, but it's pretty horrendous right now and the arrest route has some damaging side effects: arrest records.

There are no better ideas from Mr. Ehrlich. He's been silent on the years-long epidemic of murder. And even now as he criticizes the mayor he offers no alternative.

In the debates last weekend, the governor said state money is keeping the city afloat. "I pay for you," the governor said. Without the state's financial assistance, he added, "you're done."

There's truth as well as bravado in that declaration. Much of Maryland's poverty, violent crime and murders can be found in Baltimore - even as the city's booming waterfront and cultural amenities make it a more attractive place to live for people who can pay their way.

What voters should demand of candidates is new thinking, a commitment to addressing root causes and the candor to say what real solutions will cost.

Anything less is not leadership.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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