Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley argued to a national audience yesterday that increased spending on homeland security would help protect cities not only from foreign terrorists but also from the likes of car thieves and drug dealers.
During a half-hour address at the National Press Club, O'Malley (D) called for more federal spending on port security, communications equipment for law enforcement and closed-circuit television cameras such as those recently installed in his city.
With the cameras, "cities could branch out their networks to free poor neighborhoods from the death grip of perennial drug dealing," O'Malley said during a speech broadcast live on C-SPAN and National Public Radio. "With software upgrades for license plate recognition, cameras could help apprehend persons wanted for national security reasons while at the same time recovering countless stolen vehicles."
The speaking engagement was the latest exposure on what has become a niche issue for O'Malley nationally as he gears up to run for Maryland governor next year.
O'Malley, whose city has the closest deep-water port to Washington, addressed the Democratic National Convention on homeland security last summer, and club officials said he was invited to speak at yesterday's luncheon in his capacity as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' task force on homeland security.
Although not billed as a campaign event, O'Malley's visit to the District provided timely exposure to Maryland voters in the Washington media market and to Democratic donors across the country. His focus on homeland security has not been without pitfalls, however.
Civil libertarians have criticized his emphasis on surveillance cameras -- Baltimore launched a $2 million downtown network in May.
"In our view, the advantages of public video surveillance cameras are greatly exaggerated," said Jay Stanley, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union. "They have considerable unfortunate side effects for people's privacy."
And O'Malley's out-of-state appearances have provided fodder for detractors, who argue that he is using the issue primarily to advance his political ambitions.
"The mayor would be best-served by concentrating on the day-to-day lives of the people of Baltimore rather than giving speeches with lofty rhetoric at the National Press Club," Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland GOP, said yesterday.
O'Malley also drew criticism in February -- including from some fellow Democrats -- for comparing President Bush's budget proposal for urban areas to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "With a budget ax, he is attacking America's cities," O'Malley said of Bush at a news conference in the District that drew several other mayors and local officials.
Yesterday's address, to about 300 people, did not include such incendiary rhetoric but pulled no punches in accusing Republicans of failing to meet the homeland security needs of cities.
"In Washington today, the traditional strong defense values of the party of Abraham Lincoln are found only in the words carved on the cold walls of his memorial," O'Malley said.
O'Malley said local officials do not expect their fire and police departments to be "totally federally funded."
"We're simply asking for federal help in covering the additional costs brought about by this foreign threat to America's national security," he said.
O'Malley argued that "an affliction of complacency" has taken root in the United States -- even with the recent terrorist attacks in London -- and is undermining efforts to spend more on homeland security.
Moreover, he said, there is too much finger-pointing.
"Mayors point to the president," O'Malley said. "The president points to governors. Governors point to Congress. A senior statesman declares solemnly that 'we can't possibly defend every square inch of the continental United States.' The entire committee breaks for lunch, and nothing much gets done."
O'Malley said Maryland in particular would stand to gain from a sustained investment in homeland security that included stepped-up spending on biodefense research and development of vaccines and inoculations.
"Imagine the vast economic and employment opportunities that will emanate from places like [the National Institutes of Health], Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and the biotech corridor of I-270 in Montgomery County," O'Malley said. "States like California and Massachusetts built their economies on the defense investments of the Cold War. States like Maryland have the opportunity to grow their economies by making needed contributions in a war where technology, science and medicine are keys to victory."