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O'Malley for governor

The Baltimore Sun

Putting aside the rhetorical excesses of what has been an extended, if not particularly inspiring, gubernatorial race, voters must choose between an incumbent with, at best, an uneven record and a challenger with a worthy agenda. Both men are intelligent, telegenic and ambitious. But we believe Martin O'Malley, who has performed well in the difficult role of big-city mayor, is the better choice to lead this state through the challenges that lie ahead.

In the next four years, Maryland is likely to face a return of $1 billion annual budget deficits. Issues of growth and development, the continued degradation of the Chesapeake Bay, the quality of public schools, the region's congested roads and strained transit systems, the rising cost of health care and the future of the state's economy are of paramount concern. Such issues require a governor with vision who can work with the General Assembly and overcome what has devolved into a dysfunctional and contentious atmosphere in Annapolis.

Mr. O'Malley has demonstrated these leadership skills. When he was first elected mayor in 1999, the former two-term city councilman inherited a city of rising crime, failing schools and shrinking economic prospects. He was able to reverse course in all these areas. He made fighting crime and beefing up the Police Department a priority, and reduced the number of murders and other violent crimes. He helped rescue the school system from the financial brink. And even the most jaded critic would have to concede that the city's economy has leaped forward dramatically - from the expanding Inner Harbor and east-side biotechnology park to the growing list of reviving neighborhoods, such as Patterson Park and Reservoir Hill.

Of course, neither Mr. O'Malley nor anyone else can claim that the city's chronic problems are now solved. Far from it. There are still too many murders, too much poverty and too many failing students in the public schools to even contemplate such a notion. But the progress under the mayor's tenure is clear and irrefutable. He has demanded accountability to a degree that his predecessors did not - and his CitiStat tracking system has become a national model.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has fared less well running a government - despite having far greater power and resources available to him. Too often the former congressman has chosen to score a political point rather than make policy. His slots proposal was a mess, a poorly considered handout to racetrack owners that squandered the administration's political capital. He abandoned his own medical malpractice reform bill when lawmakers insisted it be adequately funded. That tactic kept him politically pure but cost physicians the legal reforms they had sought. And his failure to provide an adequate response to rising utility rates, to remove a less-than-inspiring Public Service Commission or to recognize the problems associated with a looming deregulation of the industry continues to be troublesome.

On too many fronts, from his refusal to endorse a state minimum wage to the rising tuition he forced on Maryland's public universities through budget cuts, Mr. Ehrlich has turned his back on issues important to the middle class. At times, he has not even seemed particularly engaged with the day-to-day demands of the job. And too many of his most noteworthy successes - the $1.4 billion Thornton funding boost to public education, the state's investment in embryonic stem cell research, and the Healthy Air Act curbs on power plant pollution, to name a few - were forced on him by the Democratic legislature.

The incumbent likes to boast that he "solved" the state budget deficit. But mostly, he has deferred the problem by raising fees and taxes to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars annually and by diverting money from the state's vital transportation and land conservation programs. His piecemeal approach to fiscal policies - and an upswing in the economic cycle - have only forestalled the effects of the continuing structural deficit.

The mayor is not without his faults. He has sometimes shown a tendency toward impatience and arrogance, characteristics that have not served him well. But he has also had to endure personal attacks through a rumor campaign that was traced to a member of the governor's inner circle. And Mr. Ehrlich's brand of testiness has proved far more problematic, particularly in his dealings with lawmakers and the press. When confronted with an embarrassing sale of land in St. Mary's County to a politically connected developer, his response was to blacklist a Sun reporter and columnist.

Mr. O'Malley and Prince George's County Del. Anthony G. Brown, his well-qualified choice for lieutenant governor who brings diversity and legislative experience to the ticket, have crafted a platform that promises reforms and new ideas. They have vowed to bolster public education and make college more affordable, improve the health care system, expand drug treatment, protect the environment, focus on the state's expanding knowledge-based economy, alleviate traffic gridlock and increase openness and accountability in state government. All are laudatory goals. Where the proposal falls short is Mr. O'Malley's opaqueness regarding how all of it might be financed beyond cost-cutting and efficiencies.

But at least the Democrats have a vision. Rather than outline any plans for state government in the next term, Mr. Ehrlich's campaign has been devoted primarily to portraying Baltimore as the seventh level of the netherworld. Such a stilted view of reality would be harmless enough if its underlying message were not so destructive.

Mr. Ehrlich wants voters to believe he would have accomplished much more if only the Democrats in the General Assembly had not thwarted him at every turn. But that's not much of an excuse for the inertia of the last four years. Governors from California to Virginia have overcome such political barriers. They show flexibility, build coalitions and strike compromises. Annapolis has never been about monolithic rule. Even under Democratic governors, it has always required balancing the interests of poor and wealthy, rural and urban, liberal and conservative. We have no reason to believe Mr. Ehrlich would address the state's neglected agenda. Mr. O'Malley can, and therefore merits our endorsement.

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