BALTIMORE – Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley clashed Tuesday over President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress, hinting at potential campaign themes in the general election this fall.
Though not meeting at a formal debate, Republican Ehrlich and Democrat O’Malley squared off at the Maryland Disabilities Gubernatorial Forum at a downtown hotel.
Ehrlich pointed to a track record of disabilities programs by his administration, including the creation of the cabinet-level Department of Disabilities chaired by running mate Kristen Cox. His staff distributed copies of the department’s annual report, which outlined community integration, transportation, employment and housing initiatives undertaken during his time in office.
O’Malley, meanwhile, hammered at President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress, charging they were responsible for “huge cuts” in nationally funded health care programs and promising to be a governor who “stands up” to Washington.
“We cannot be silent as George Bush slashes Medicaid funding,” O’Malley said.
Moderator Chad E. McCruden, vice chairman of programs for the Maryland Disabilities Forum, said in his introductory remarks that the forum was “not a debate.” But tension between the two candidates mounted, with Ehrlich at one point growing visibly agitated by O’Malley’s comments about the Bush administration, which the mayor worked into the majority of his responses.
“I’ve heard a lot about the federal government here,” Ehrlich said. “The federal government is not our enemy. In fact, with our administration it’s been the friend of many people in this room.”
O’Malley offered a retort while answering a subsequent question.
“What I had said is that the choices being made by George Bush and the Republican Congress are choices that harm the most vulnerable of our citizens,” he said. “Oh no, government is not our enemy. The people that make our government small, and weak, and ineffective, while maintaining tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent of Americans, they’re the people that are trying to move us in the wrong direction.”
Before leaving the forum to attend a cabinet meeting, Ehrlich struck back at O’Malley while responding to a question about state and local school coordination for special needs students. He pointedly referred to the proposed state takeover of the Baltimore City schools earlier this year, which was blocked by the General Assembly.
“Partnership sounds good when you say it real fast, but when a school system is completely dysfunctional, and a federal court orders a state rescue team in . . . that’s not a partnership, that’s dysfunction,” he said. “Most jurisdictions are doing well . . . the test scores with respect to special needs kids around the State of Maryland, outside of one subdivision, reflect that fact.”
O’Malley responded after Ehrlich left. The mayor elicited a round of applause from the crowd of about 150 gathered at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore. “I’m very proud of the progress that our school system has been making, and I would hope that soon we’ll have a governor who shows that pride too, that is willing to take responsibility instead of cheap pot shots before he runs out the door.”
Kimball Gray, 45, of Silver Spring, said that on disabilities issues, both Ehrlich and O’Malley conveyed considerable knowledge of the key issues, with neither landing a slam dunk. “It’s still up for grabs, I think, even this close in (to the election)” he said. Gray said he was particularly impressed by Cox, who filled in for Ehrlich during the final few questions of the forum. “I’m more impressed that they’ve got a person that knows disability policy,” he said. “She has a very good understanding.”