Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s re-election campaign aired a radio ad yesterday that accuses Mayor Martin O'Malley of running a police department that has unlawfully arrested thousands of black residents of Baltimore.
The commercial features prominent Baltimore attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr. - an African-American and Ehrlich ally - and launches the governor's attack on O'Malley's management of a police department dogged by commissioner turnover and accusations of misconduct.
"[O'Malley] sanctions and directs the arrests of thousands of Baltimore city people -predominantly black - without ever charging them with a crime," Murphy says in the 60-second spot running on black radio stations in the Baltimore and Washington markets.
The shift in the Republican governor's tactics comes after weeks of television commercials critical of the Democratic mayor's stewardship of Baltimore's public school system.
Ehrlich's ad escalated the vitriol between the candidates, as O'Malley's camp replied in an e-mail that the governor is "lying because he's losing."
"When the polls show that you're down by 6 points, you have to step up with six weeks to go in the campaign, and that means going negative," said Zach Messitte, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
O'Malley holds a 50 percent to 44 percent lead over Ehrlich with fewer than six weeks to go before the Nov. 7 election - about the same lead O'Malley held in a July poll. The mid-September poll of 815 likely voters has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
"With only 40 days to go, Bob Ehrlich is trailing in every poll, after wasting millions of dollars on his failed two-month attack on Baltimore's schools, so now he's attacking our police officers," said O'Malley campaign spokesman Steve Kearney.
O'Malley aides said that Murphy, a Democrat who ran for mayor in 1983, is well-known as an Ehrlich ally and that he recently endorsed Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's Republican bid for Senate.
Murphy earned more than $100,000 from the Maryland Stadium Authority in 2004 and last year for helping the state agency determine whether it should sue Major League Baseball. That no-bid work, which never led to a lawsuit, was criticized by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat and O'Malley's father-in-law. Curran contended that the authority exceeded its authority by paying Murphy.
Murphy said O'Malley was simply trying to avoid the substance of his commercial.
"I guess they were upset that they hired me instead of Martin O'Malley's father-in-law," Murphy said.
In the ad, Murphy introduces himself as a lawyer with 36 years of experience which includes three as a Baltimore Circuit Court judge.
He says he will not vote for O'Malley because the city Police Department arrests thousands of people who are charged with crimes that are never prosecuted "because there wasn't enough evidence to charge them in the first place."
The Sun reported in Feburary that the Baltimore state's attorney's office declined to prosecute about 25,000 arrests last year - about one in three arrests by officers who believe they have observed a crime. Police estimate the figure is closer to one in five. Murphy also asserts in the commercial that police officers are "thoroughly demoralized" because O'Malley has "had seven police commissioners in the seven years he's been mayor. The worst record in the United States."
"They don't know who their police commissioner is going to be from week to week, day to day, month to month, year to year," Murphy said.
Police officials and Baltimore City Council members have long said that leadership changes in the Police Department have led to low morale and a steady loss of senior command staff from the city.
"The morale is terrible," said Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. "Officers are leaving the Police Department and going to work elsewhere."
But city officials said Murphy's count of police commissioners was an exaggeration. They said the mayor has had four permanent commissioners.
The mayor's first commissioner, Ronald L. Daniel, resigned after 57 days. Edward T. Norris became commissioner in 2000 and resigned in 2002 when Ehrlich appointed him superintendent of the Maryland State Police. Norris pleaded guilty in 2004 to federal corruption charges for actions he took while city commissioner.
Norris was succeeded by Kevin P. Clark, who was fired by O'Malley in November 2004 after he was accused of domestic abuse, which he denied. The mayor appointed the current commissioner, Leonard D. Hamm, last year with City Council approval.
Shareese DeLeaver, an Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman, said the governor's campaign counts the city's three interim commissioners to support its claim of seven commissioners.
Murphy's commercial will air for seven days before a second one featuring him is set to take its place. Television commercials focused on crime are expected, but Ehrlich officials would not comment on their strategy.
O'Malley aides also took issue with the Ehrlich camp's accusations about arrests.
"[Ehrlich will] make every false, sleazy accusation in the book, because he doesn't want to talk about his record of higher utility rates, tuition and health care costs," Kearney said. "But the truth is, crime is down in Baltimore."
The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Police Department and the state-run city jail in June for the arrests and detainment of thousands of people for hours without charges.
City officials have said that police officers have to meet only the standard of probable cause when arresting people. That's a lesser threshold than proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard that prosecutors must reach for convictions.
Lawyers for the city have said that just because the state's attorney declines to charge people does not suggest arrests are illegal. Prosecutors often determine that hours spent in Central Booking are appropriate punishment for minor crimes - a situation called "abatement by arrest."
Political observers said they are not surprised that Ehrlich has begun attacking O'Malley on crime. Ehrlich hinted at the strategy during a debate with O'Malley this month, when the governor said: "[O'Malley] says crime is down. I have two police commissioners who say crime statistics are being manipulated."
Messitte and several other observers said the ad could be effective in luring traditionally Democratic black voters away from O'Malley. Two other political commentators - Donald F. Norris and James G. Gimpel - both said the radio commercial reminded them of the 1988 "Willie Horton" ad that attacked Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis by telling voters that the Massachusetts governor furloughed Horton, a black inmate, who then later raped a white woman.
"I'm not surprised that Bob Ehrlich is using this proven strategy," said Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland. "He has an opponent in Martin O'Malley who is vulnerable to this."
Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the Ehrlich ad was the "reverse" of the Horton attacks.
"Bush used ... a black criminal to scare white people. The opposite would be to use a white politician to scare black people," Norris said.
Said Gimpel: "I think it's not enough of a reason to get Prince George's County blacks to vote for Bob Ehrlich, but I do believe it's enough of a reason to make them cooler to O'Malley."