Campaign ads get graphic in Baltimore County

This campaign flier gets your attention.

On one side, the mailing from Baltimore County executive candidate Kevin Kamenetz shows an offshore oil rig engulfed in flames. The text says the Gulf of Mexico disaster is going to cost BP billions.

On the other side is an image of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. If the disaster happened here, the flier claims, Joseph Bartenfelder would cap BP's liability at $10 million — "And we would be left to clean up the mess."

Kamenetz's shot at his fellow Democrat's environmental record as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates is powerful, but also misleading.

The flier comes as part of an attack by Kamenetz in the closing weeks of a tough Democratic primary campaign between two members of the Baltimore County Council who have worked together for 16 years and agreed on policy more often than not.

In focusing on Bartenfelder's environmental record, Kamenetz is highlighting one of the few policy areas on which they have diverged. Kamenetz has been endorsed by the Greater Baltimore Sierra Club and won an award this spring from the Valleys Planning Council, a local preservation group. Both organizations recognized Kamenetz for work he's done to preserve open space and protect Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Bartenfelder, who served as a delegate from 1982 to 1994, averaged 31 out of 100 in three ratings from the League of Conservation Voters — a low of 11 and high of 43 — giving him one of the lower ratings in the legislature, as a Kamenetz television advertisement points out.

The flier focuses on Bartenfelder's support for a bill introduced 18 years ago, not long after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Bartenfelder did support a cap on liability, but the legislation was limited to certain tankers, not drilling platforms, which do not exist in the Chesapeake Bay.

And the tankers specified in the legislation are small by industry standards, with capacities nowhere near the volume of oil spilled in the Gulf. If a disaster on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon spill were somehow to occur in the bay, the cap would not have applied.

Kamenetz could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His campaign manager, Peter Clerkin, said that "we stand by the accuracy of the ads. Kevin has a very good record on the environment, as evidenced by the Sierra Club and Valleys Planning Council support. Our opponent has a history of supporting legislation that's not good for the environment."

Others are divided on that mailing and a similar flier, which are more inflammatory in their claims and imagery than the TV spot.

Donald Norris, who heads the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, called the mailings "way over the top." He described them as unusual in the "extent of distortion" and in the way they link a national disaster to a local candidate: "I have not seen stuff like this in county executive races."

Given the legislative record, Norris said, the BP claim was "as if someone voted against controlling illegal aliens, and you had a picture of the World Trade Center coming down."

Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University who said he advised the Kamenetz campaign months ago on one neighborhoods issue, looked at the mailers and said that "clearly it distorts the implications of the legislation." However, he said "this is ordinary politics."

Former state Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Kamenetz supporter, said the images were as striking as they needed to be to get attention. If the mailers are read for the general point, he said, they're accurate.

"The message of the ad is Joe is not good for the environment," said Collins, who served in the General Assembly at the same time as Bartenfelder. "You don't have to distort. Joe had a bad record."

Examining the record, however, shows Kamenetz making misleading claims about the purpose of two of the four bills cited in the advertisements, which began late last month. Only one of the four — the Critical Area Act of 1984 — became law.

In the TV spot, narrator Joan Plisko, an environmental activist from Catonsville, says Bartenfelder voted to "cap any oil spill damage at just $10 million, an amount that's laughably low." Two mailings go a step further in tying that vote to the BP spill, one mailer showing the burning rig, the other showing a man in full white hazmat gear on a beach standing next to a sign: "WARNING — NO SWIMMING — Joe Bartenfelder wuz here."

Both the TV ad and the mailers cite the 1992 bill that would have applied the liability cap only to ships of 5,000 gross tons and less, and would not apply if the spill involved negligence or legal violations. To give a sense of scale, the Exxon Valdez, now named the S/R Mediterranean, is 110,831 gross tons, according to Jane's Merchant Ships.

The Exxon Valdez was carrying 53 million gallons of oil when it ran aground in Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989. A tanker of 5,000 gross tons — a measure of volume, not weight — would carry between 1.8 and 2.8 million gallons, according to a spokeswoman for the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation in London.

A review of legislative files — including witness testimony and committee reports — shows that the bill was supported by the maritime industry and opposed by environmentalists. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation argued that the shallowness, currents and shape of the bay make it particularly vulnerable to oil spills.

The measure was intended to help the port of Baltimore compete with Philadelphia and Norfolk for shipping traffic, and to bring Maryland's oil spill damages cap in line with those of nearby states and with the Federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Bill supporters argued that unlimited liability in the port of Baltimore was driving up insurance costs and hurting business.

Bartenfelder said in an interview that he voted for the oil spill liability cap out of concern for owners of relatively small vessels, including pleasure boats.

The advertisements also say that Bartenfelder "voted against pesticide regulations to protect the bay," but the record is more mixed.

Bartenfelder opposed a 1986 bill that would have required pesticide companies to post signs giving 48 hours' notice of the next application. It was opposed by, among others, the Maryland Nurserymen's Association and supported by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

In 1993, Bartenfelder supported a bill to give the Department of Agriculture authority to regulate pesticides, and giving the agency discretion in allowing cities and counties to make their own, more stringent rules. It was opposed by environmentalists and supported by the Nurserymen and other industry organizations, who wanted a consistent standard for the whole state.

In 1984, Bartenfelder voted against the Critical Area Act, which created a buffer zone at the bay shoreline by restricting development rights. In an interview, he said his concern was property rights.

"That came down to property values," he said. "That was a re-zoning and almost a taking without having (property owners) have their say."

The third candidate in the Democratic race is Ronald E. Harvey, a retired county personnel analyst from Nottingham. The winner of the Democratic primary next week will face the unopposed Republican, investments executive Kenneth Holt, in November.

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