Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley yesterday compared President Bush's proposed budget cuts to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying that Bush, like the al Qaeda hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, has launched an assault on America's cities.
"These cuts, ladies and gentlemen, are sad. Irresponsible. They are also dishonest," O'Malley (D) told a packed news conference at the National Press Club, where mayors and area officials had gathered to decry Bush's plan to slash spending on community development programs by $2 billion.
"With a budget ax, [President Bush] is attacking America's cities," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
"Back on September 11, terrorists attacked our metropolitan cores, two of America's great cities. They did that because they knew that was where they could do the most damage and weaken us the most," O'Malley said. "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."
Those present appeared to be a bit stunned by the comparison. Afterward, one reporter asked O'Malley to explain his "inflammatory rhetoric." D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who also serves as president of the National League of Cities, said he disagreed with "the harsh language that was used," though he declined to criticize O'Malley directly. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said O'Malley's remarks "went way too far."
"The president of the United States is fighting terrorism. It hurts our cause when people say things like that," said Duncan, who, like O'Malley, is expected to seek the Democratic nomination in the 2006 race against Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
If O'Malley's fellow Democrats were abashed by his remarks, Maryland Republicans were appalled. They said O'Malley made similarly incendiary comments last summer, when he told supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry at a Baltimore fundraiser that Bush and his administration worry the mayor more than al Qaeda terrorists.
"Martin O'Malley is truly beginning to spin out of control. His rhetoric is beginning to border on the bizarre," Maryland GOP Chairman John Kane said in a written statement. "His own counterparts, including Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams, do not support Martin O'Malley's divisive, inflammatory and reckless attempt to grab national headlines."
Through a spokeswoman, Ehrlich encouraged O'Malley to keep his attention focused on Baltimore. "Before he begins to tackle national issues, perhaps he should address the crime-ridden streets and failing schools in his own city," said spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver.
In an interview, O'Malley said he "in no way intended to equate these budget cuts, however bad, to a terrorist attack."
"The point I am trying to make is, for America to be strong, we have to strengthen our cities. Because we're in the middle of a war, we need to be strengthening and protecting our cities, not weakening our cities. Two of our cities have already been attacked in this war."
O'Malley stood by separate comments, in which he called Bush's budget plan "a lie." Under the title "Strengthening America's Communities Initiative," the administration is proposing to move a 30-year-old economic development program known as Community Development Block Grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Commerce Department. Commerce also would absorb an additional 17 community development programs from other Cabinet agencies.
Together, the 18 programs receive about $5.7 billion in federal funds. Bush would spend $3.7 billion on the new Commerce Department initiative, a reduction of about $2 billion.
"It is a false and misleading thing," O'Malley said of the communities initiative. "If any mayor reduced school funding by 33 percent and called it the 'Strengthening Our Schools Initiative,' I think they'd be excoriated."
Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.