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A Dirty Shame

By Russ Smith | Posted 1/4/2006

Judging by the reaction from Maryland Democrats and journalists upon learning that Gov. Robert Ehrlich hired GOP consultant Bo Harmon to run his re-election campaign, you’d think that “gutter politics” were invented in 2002.

Harmon is infamous in liberal circles because he helped Rep. Saxby Chambliss unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam vet who lost three limbs in combat, in that Georgia contest just over three years ago. The Chambliss campaign aired a bareknuckled commercial criticizing Cleland for opposing President Bush’s homeland security bill—the senator voted 11 times against the bill because it excluded union provisions—and included the images of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

In a Dec. 10 article, Maryland Democratic Party spokesman Derek Walter, no wallflower when it comes to partisan invective, told Sun reporter Andrew Green, “Bo Harmon has run the nastiest, most divisive campaign in recent memory, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t bring similar tactics to Maryland under the direction of Tom DeLay-trained Bob Ehrlich.”

Two days later, Sun columnist Michael Olesker added to the firestorm over Ehrlich’s “pattern” of employing “dirty tricks” during his administration. He concluded: “Oh, Harmon’s going to love working for the Ehrlich campaign folks. They’re the type who feed off each other. While the rest of us pick at the bare bones of a once-civil political process.”

Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who has been pilloried by some Democrats as a traitor to his race because he’s a conservative Republican running for the U.S. Senate, might disagree that the nastiness is one-sided. Even The Washington Post, which will certainly endorse Democrat Ben Cardin (assuming he defeats Kweisi Mfume in the September primary), stuck up for Steele. In a Dec. 4 editorial, the paper said, “[A] number of current Democratic candidates—including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in the Senate race and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan in the gubernatorial race—have, by refusing explicitly to condemn black Democrats for their poisonous comments about Mr. Steele, given the impression that racially tinged political rhetoric is within the bounds of civil debate. It is not.”

American politics have always been dirty, going back to the early 19th century, but one example might give Olesker pause. In 1977, when Mario Cuomo was facing off against fellow Democrat Ed Koch in New York’s mayoral race, the future governor’s campaign hardly discouraged supporters from telling voters, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”

No party has a monopoly on distasteful remarks or campaigns. Pat Robertson, the odious televangelist and one-time presidential candidate, said last year that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ought to be assassinated. Jerry Falwell’s unceasing demonization of gay Americans is nauseating. You can’t count the number of times that President Bush has been compared to Hitler or Stalin. Last August, entertainer Harry Belafonte, questioned about the number of fellow blacks in the Bush administration, said, “Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean declared that Republicans are “brain-dead” citizens, some of whom have “never made an honest living in their lives.”

Later this year, when the state’s nationally high-profile gubernatorial and senate primaries and elections are in full swing, plenty of mud will be slung on both sides. Right now, I can’t understand why O’Malley is being so aggressive toward his competitor. Last month, when Duncan slammed O’Malley before an audience of minority leaders in Bethesda for supporting “expanded gambling, even on a limited basis initially,” somewhat distorting the mayor’s position, O’Malley was unstinting in his criticism, saying Duncan was “desperate.” He told the Post’s John Wagner, “This is what he does. He knows full well that I don’t favor slots as the revenue solution, and I would hope that he knows how valuable these racing jobs are.”

It’s easy to predict the content of the ads Marylanders will be bombarded with on television this fall. The O’Malley campaign will portray former Ehrlich aide Joseph Steffen as a boogeyman who symbolizes the incumbent’s administration. (The guy is a creep but isn’t representative of Ehrlich’s term.) The governor’s support for Bush’s Iraq policy is also bound to be a focal point.

On the flip side, the Ehrlich campaign will focus on the murder rate in Baltimore—which even The Sun, a paper that despises Ehrlich, called “astronomic” in a Dec. 28 editorial—and portray O’Malley as an ambitious lightweight who is more proficient at campaigning than governing.

And it’s a lock that Harmon will remind voters of what O’Malley said at the 2004 Democratic National Convention: “I remember after the attacks of September 11, as mayor of the city, I was very, very worried about al-Qaida and still am. But I’m even more worried about the actions and inactions of the Bush administration.”

Both parties will be brutal in the gubernatorial and senate campaigns. I wonder if Olesker will focus solely on the Republicans.

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