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Missing in Action

By Russ Smith | Posted 9/14/2005

Has anyone seen Martin O’Malley lately?

Less than 15 months remain before his expected race against Gov. Robert Ehrlich, and Baltimore’s mayor has ceded almost all media attention to Ehrlich. Why, for example, didn’t O’Malley hold a press conference last week when Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp., owner of the Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, announced its intentions to reduce the number of racing days at both facilities? The company’s plans, a transparent ploy to revive the slots controversy in Maryland, captured the attention of Ehrlich, Senate President Mike Miller, House Speaker Michael Busch, The Sun, and The Washington Post, but O’Malley barely made a peep.

The governor, predictably, called Magna’s thinly veiled threat to eventually shutter Pimlico a “wake-up call.” O’Malley, who favors limited slots, merely let spokesman Steve Kearney tell the Sun’s Andrew Green on Sept. 8 that his boss has “pressed Magna officials to increase the Pimlico dates [which would be cut from 60 to 18] and remains concerned about the future of the track and its economic impact.”

The region’s two major dailies, on cue, took the Magna report as an opportunity to rail against slots—if citizens believe Ehrlich is obsessed with gambling, the moralistic Post and Sun are every bit his equal—although the Washington newspaper was far more direct in its opinion that if racetracks eventually fold in Maryland, it’s not that big a deal. The Post’s Sept. 11 editorial, “Horse Sense, and Nonsense,” was a raspberry directed at everyone involved in the sport. “If, as [Ehrlich] suggests, the racing industry is on its last legs in Maryland,” the paper sermonized, “why not ask the legislature to subsidize the industry with funds found the old-fashioned way: by raising taxes or cutting other programs?”

Ehrlich and O’Malley differ on the magnitude of expanding legal gambling in the state, but the latter’s low profile is a baffling political mistake. Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, who hasn’t been shy about taking potshots at Ehrlich, has recently given the governor more breathing space, in part because of O’Malley’s disappearing act.

Rodricks first criticized the mayor for his lukewarm support for the city-financed convention center hotel. He wrote on Aug. 15, “At one point, O’Mayor said the hotel would be in the ‘best interest’ of the city. He also said that, all things considered, the financing plan in the current convention market presented a ‘very acceptable risk.’ . . . But those pronouncements sound like wish-wash from a mild-mannered financial geek, not the savvy, progressive mayor of a rapidly redeveloping East Coast city.”

Then, on Sept. 11, Rodricks offered at least limited praise for the governor, saying, “The Ehrlich administration has been good about maintaining funding for drug abuse, during a budget crunch. The governor is showing progressive thinking and leadership here.” I wouldn’t be surprised in coming months if Ehrlich’s public-relations team quotes Rodricks’ comments (probably taken out of context, but that’s what politicians do) on campaign brochures.

O’Malley also missed an opportunity to bash the Bush White House in particular, and Republicans in general, at a Howard County Democratic Labor Day picnic. The emphasis was on George W. Bush’s tepid, to be charitable, response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Rep. Ben Cardin, running for that open seat, were in full throttle campaign mode. Sarbanes, who no longer needs to be circumspect in his rhetoric, said at the function, “For Maryland to allow a Republican to take over the governor’s mansion is a disgrace and a shame.” I happen to think that was a rash statement, even at a partisan event, since it insults everyone who voted for Ehrlich and might rally wavering supporters of the incumbent, but had O’Malley been standing next to Sarbanes he’d now have a de facto endorsement from the senator.

Even when Ehrlich is on the wrong side of an issue, such as the current high gasoline prices in Maryland, the third most expensive in the nation behind New York and Washington, D.C., at least he’s engaging a concern of his constituents. After meeting with petroleum company representatives on Sept. 9 in Annapolis, Ehrlich had nothing of substance to report, other than saying, “I do not understand, why Maryland has to be a top five or top 10 state [in gas prices] when we’re doing OK on the supply side.” Lt. Gov. Michael Steele added, unhelpfully, that he and Ehrlich hope to reduce gasoline prices by a dollar in the “near future,” according to The Sun, but offered no plan on how to achieve that. Big surprise: Right now, gas station proprietors, who are squeezed by their distributors, are charging what the market will bear. If Marylanders buy less gas, prices will go down.

One hopes that Ehrlich doesn’t succumb to the example set by Georgia’s Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, who’s issued an edict penalizing gasoline dealers who charge more than he believes is just. Even worse—and this would be a stunner coming from Ehrlich—would be the imposition of economically disastrous price controls, an idea that Democratic senators Chuck Schumer, Jon Corzine, Maria Cantwell, and Carl Levin are toying with. Even The New York Times opposed that folly on Sept. 11.

But the question persists: With so many issues vital to Marylanders, why is O’Malley relatively silent? Maybe Doug Duncan isn’t such a long shot after all.

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