Democrat Martin O'Malley and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. traded views on policing strategies, minority-owned business set-asides and funding for historically black universities during a radio debate Thursday that focused on African-American issues.
O'Malley, the incumbent, kept mainly to his campaign talking points during the exchange at the WOLB studio in Baltimore. Ehrlich, who won his term in 2002 as part of a ticket with a black running mate, Michael S. Steele, went on the attack.
The debate marked the third, and possibly last, in-person encounter between the candidates before Election Day on Nov. 2. It came one day before early voting starts.
O'Malley repeatedly said that when Ehrlich was a congressman, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave him an "F" rating, and noted that the Republican had asked President George W. Bush to investigate the civil rights organization for potential tax violations. Ehrlich, at one point, counted out loud the "gratuitous" Bush references.
But O'Malley has also had run-ins with the civil rights group, which, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the city over the zero-tolerance policing policy O'Malley implemented as mayor. His successors abandoned the program, and Baltimore paid $870,000 this year to settle the case.
Asked about the arrest policy by the debate's host, former state Sen. Larry Young, O'Malley described his public safety program as "more effective and better policing."
He said when he became mayor in 1999, Baltimore was the "most drug-addicted," "most violent" and "most abandoned" city in the country.
"Many of us had given up any hope that we'd be able to reclaim our corners for the good and decent people who live in every neighborhood," he said. He said the standards of policing became more consistent under his leadership.
Ehrlich disagreed and said the effect of O'Malley's time in City Hall was to create "criminal records for people who did nothing more than walking around."
Another testy exchange came when O'Malley made a reference to Ehrlich's private-sector job, calling him a "lobbyist" with the Baltimore office of the North Carolina law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Ehrlich, who is not registered as a lobbyist, shot back: "It is OK to get a job in the private sector. You are going to be looking for one in a few months."
O'Malley said his administration has given a record amount to black- and women-owned companies and accused Ehrlich of wanting to abolish the state's minority contracting program. He was referring to a comment Ehrlich made in 2005, when the then-governor said he believed minority set-aside program for state contracts "needs to end."
Ehrlich denied the accusation Thursday. The Baltimore Sun reported at the time that the governor clarified his remarks to say the state's "collective goal" is that the set-aside program, which was designed to be temporary but has been extended several times, should end "at some point in time."
The candidates also clashed over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. O'Malley called it "courageous;" Ehrlich said it was "countercultural" and would result in providing less care to older people who become sick.
As the debate wound down, the two touched on veterans affairs. O'Malley noted a "moment of agreement" with Ehrlich about providing a tax exemption for military veterans. O'Malley said he has chosen to spend tight dollars on mental health services for veterans but is open to the tax idea in the future.
Top city officials, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Gregg Bernstein, the Democratic nominee for city state's attorney, watched the debate in the studio. As a defense lawyer, Bernstein represented Larry Young in a 1999 bribery and tax evasion case, securing his acquittal.
As in previous meetings, the O'Malley campaign turned out boisterous supporters who crowded into the station's parking lot. Ehrlich's support was less visible, although two prominent Baltimore defense attorneys, Billy Murphy and A. Dwight Pettit, attended the debate at Ehrlich's invitation.
Afterward, O'Malley said voters were shown "a clear choice" between the candidates. "I thought it was a healthy exchange of ideas," he said.
That prompted Green Party nominee Maria Allwine, who was in the parking lot to protest her exclusion from the debate, to say it would have been a healthier exchange if she'd been given a seat.
Recent polls have shown O'Malley pulling away from Ehrlich in a race that was once a dead heat. Ehrlich said Thursday that he's confident that he can improve his performance with black voters. "We think we can up our numbers here based on our record."
Baltimore Sun reporters Jean Marbella, Childs Walker and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.
Early voting begins
When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. today though Thursday (except Sunday)
Where: Find early voting polling places at mdearlyvote.com/