Maryland and Virginia have been fighting cross-border air pollution for years. But there's some dirty air you can't do much about -- like the poisonous Jerry Kilgore death penalty ads that have been floating across the airwaves and into Maryland.

These days, TVs have lots of new gadgets, but what they really need is something to keep Virginia's political trash on its side of the river. In these appalling ads, Virginia's attorney general trots out hapless relatives of murder victims for his brand of self-serving, high-tech demagoguery.

Is this really the level of public discourse in the commonwealth? Virginians should think twice before turning up their noses at Maryland politics. For we Marylanders who just want to watch "Desperate Housewives," it's terribly frustrating to sit through ads sponsored by the Desperate Attorney General. At least Virginians have the right to vote against Kilgore (about 25 percent of Virginians say the ads make them less likely to support him). All we Marylanders can do is yell at the television or at our Republican friends in Virginia.

Yet the Kilgore ads -- and the reaction to them -- offer a useful lesson for next year's Maryland state elections. Some Free State politicians are testing their own ideas to exploit public fears. The Maryland demagoguery would be different, though. It would sensationalize sexual predators instead of death row inmates.

You can already see it coming. One of the highlights of the Maryland political year is the governor's Saturday morning speech at the Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City. Traditionally, governors use the speech to offer a preview of major legislative initiatives. This year, though, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. devoted most of his address to talking about lifetime supervision and electronic monitoring of sexual offenders. There are even predictions that Ehrlich will devote much of his State of the State address in January to the issue. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan also have weighed in.

To be sure, there are legitimate issues concerning registration and supervision of sex offenders. And recent decisions by Maryland courts require legislative action to close loopholes involving chatroom stings and downloading of pornography. But there was a time when these issues were addressed seriously, thoughtfully and quietly. No longer. Now, sex offender issues are seen as a political opportunity.

It would be profoundly disappointing if Maryland politicians turned 2006 into the Year of the Sex Offender. Just think of the sex-offender equivalent of Kilgore's death penalty ads. Will we have to spend next October watching mothers whose children have been victims of sexual predators reliving their pain, touting their own candidate and trashing their opponents?

The data suggest it will happen. Polling shows huge public reaction to the issue, especially among female voters, where Ehrlich's support is flagging. This approach is more tempting than talking about governance.

Politicians who go the death penalty/sex offender route display profound disrespect for the electorate's ability to handle less inflammatory and more important issues. Ultimately, they diminish their capacity for a genuine legacy by squandering their bully pulpit on something so transparently self-serving and distracting.

This sensationalism distracts focus from complex and important issues:

* Expensive colleges. What will Maryland do to reverse cuts in higher education, which now place the state 37th in the nation in funding and its public colleges among the nation's most expensive?

* Crowded roads. What will the state do about two beltways that are hopelessly congested and a transportation trust fund that is running out of money?

* Crowded schools. State Treasurer Nancy Kopp identified a $1.8 billion backlog in public school construction. There are more than 700 trailer classrooms in the state. What will be done to modernize school facilities?

* Open space. What will Maryland do to reverse cuts in the open-space program and preserve green space in an era of exorbitant land prices?

* Juvenile offenders. The Ehrlich administration closed juvenile facilities. Now some juveniles are being shipped as far away as Iowa.

If you want a good barometer on what kind of political year 2006 will be in Maryland, get out your stopwatch when Ehrlich delivers his State of the State address to the legislature in January. If he spends more time on sex offender issues than on issues of governance, you'll know we're in for a long, Jerry Kilgore kind of year. If there are victims of sex offenders in the gallery for the requisite photo-op, remember them. You will see them again in October's TV ads. If that happens, Maryland will be polluting Virginia airwaves this time next year, instead of the other way around. And neither state will have anything to be proud of.

The writer, a lawyer in Greenbelt, served for 16 years as a Democratic member of the Maryland legislature. His e-mail address is