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Low Fidelity

By Russ Smith | Posted 2/16/2005

Martin O’Malley’s supporters can spin the events of last week in any way that’s politically reassuring, but the reality remains that the mayor is now in a weaker position to successfully challenge Robert Ehrlich in next year’s gubernatorial election. The dirty tricks watchdogs in the press have harrumphed about Ehrlich’s aide Joseph Steffen, forced to resign after he admitted spreading rumors about the state of O’Malley’s marriage, but once that topic’s exhausted, the public will still have questions about Baltimore’s mayor.

You can take O’Malley’s denials at face value, sympathetic about the pain suffered by his family, and still wonder why the mayor made matters worse by appearing with his wife at City Hall on Feb. 9, the day the story broke in The Sun and Washington Post to finally eliminate the dark cloud of infidelity rumors. The Sun’s Michael Olesker, in an early valentine to O’Malley on Feb. 11, said that everybody in the state had heard the stories, and lamented that O’Malley and his wife were forced to put on a “Norman Rockwell-look of marital happiness.” (Olesker’s right on one point: I’ve heard the rumors as well, and from influential Democrats who admire O’Malley; one suspects this stuff, true or not, isn’t coming just from the Ehrlich camp.)

But the City Hall cameo was a curious decision. Steffen posted his remarks on the right-wing, a web site that’s not considered entirely credible even by many conservatives, and O’Malley could’ve easily batted away the accusations with the now standard denunciation of the “politics of personal destruction.” Should further dirty-laundry charges enter the public arena, it’ll strain credibility for O’Malley to make another such appearance with his spouse.

O’Malley’s certainly correct in saying the “character smear” is “hurtful,” but no one forced him to seek elective office in an era when any politician is fair game for those who want to peddle sleaze. Perhaps the mayor, a lifelong Democrat who’s no fan of George W. Bush, might now sympathize with those who tar the president as a former cokehead and claim that he still drinks on the sly.

But O’Malley might have more severe worries than garden-variety infidelity charges to deal with in his yet unannounced bid to unseat Ehrlich. On Feb. 8 the mayor spoke before the National Press Club in Washington and compared Bush’s budget cuts to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “Back on September 11, terrorists attacked our metropolitan cores, two of America’s great cities. . . . Years later, we are given a budget proposal by our commander in chief, the president of the United States. And with a budget ax, he is attacking America’s cities. He is attacking our metropolitan core.”

Post reporter Lori Montgomery, in a story that appeared the same day as the one about Steffen resigning, wrote that “[t]hose present appeared to be a bit stunned by the comparison.” She noted that Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, another Democratic competitor for Ehrlich’s seat, said the mayor “went way too far” with his statement. “It hurts [America’s] cause when people say things like that,” clucked Duncan, who must’ve felt this week that Christmas came early.

The mayor subsequently clarified his remarks, saying he didn’t mean to equate the leveling of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon blasts with budget cuts, but this isn’t the first time he’s made this kind of analogy. Last year, at a fund raiser for John Kerry, O’Malley said that the Bush administration worried him more than al-Qaida terrorists. If you’re one of Ehrlich’s campaign consultants, it’s an easy choice to take the high road on the mayor’s rumored infidelities, and air commercials of these incredibly insensitive, and politically stupid, analogies between Bush and Islamic fanatics.

If that wasn’t enough, also on Feb. 9, The New York Times ran a front-page story about crime in Baltimore, which focused on the increasing number of homicides in the city. James Dao’s article pointed out that the murder rate—“putting Baltimore in line for the title of the deadliest big city in the nation”—is somewhat misleading, given that an overwhelming percentage of those killed are involved in drug wars, but that can’t be much comfort for O’Malley.

The Sun’s Feb. 10 comment on the subject of the rumors (“Dirty tricks redux”) was an example of how impoverished its editorial writers are in the imagination department. Lampooning Ehrlich’s pro forma lament about “intolerable” conduct of an aide, the writer answered, “[H]is behavior is reminiscent of Captain Renault, who is ‘shocked, shocked’ to discover gambling in Casablanca.” A tired cliché, however, wasn’t the worst of it. The editorial continued: “In fact, doesn’t Mr. Ehrlich’s press-bashing and blacklisting, dirty tricks and ferreting out disloyal employees sound like Richard M. Nixon? Granted, there’s at least one profound difference between the two men—Mr. Nixon got more done.”

That’s exactly the kind of self-serving and nasty hyperbole that Sun columnist Dan Rodricks on Feb. 10 relegated to the confines of “mean-stream radio and the chatty free-for-all that is the Internet.” Given his résumé, Joseph Steffen might start looking for work on Calvert Street.

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