In Ehrlich's 2-Party Test Run, A Rough Ride but Few Regrets

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007; A01

Two weeks into his term as governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. headed to the Chesapeake Bay for one of the more unusual customs in his new hometown of Annapolis: the Polar Bear Plunge.

The man whose affable demeanor helped him become the state's first Republican governor in a generation waded gamely into 34-degree surf wearing little more than tight shorts and a smile. He then bounded barefoot back onto the beach, pumping wet fists and declaring to the crowd at the charity event: "That is cold; that is really cold."

Ehrlich's plunge into frigid water turned out to be an apt introduction to Annapolis, a town where he spent four years wrangling with Democrats. When he took office, he predicted that it would be an experiment, a test of whether Maryland would finally be hospitable turf for a Republican governor.

It wasn't. His key initiatives -- legalizing slot machines, tackling medical malpractice insurance costs, stabilizing electricity rates -- sank. Other efforts were more successful but couldn't erase the sense that Democrats in the General Assembly left him largely handcuffed.

Yet as he leaves office next week after being defeated in November's election, Ehrlich says he is confident that his loss was the result of the anti-Republican sentiment that swept the country and was largely beyond his control. Assessing his tenure during recent meetings with reporters, he said he had few regrets, if any. "The truth of it is, there's not a whole lot I would do differently," he said.

His accomplishments included a landmark Chesapeake Bay initiative establishing a sewer fee for bay cleanup, significant progress on the intercounty connector that will link interstates 270 and 95, and success in balancing the state's books without raising income or sales taxes. And despite his defeat, he remained popular with many voters.

In assessing Ehrlich's legacy, Democrats talked more of political dirty tricks, of the governor's feud with some in the news media and of an obstinacy with the legislature that, they said, sometimes bordered on bewildering. They recalled his impromptu 10-minute preamble to the State of the State address, in which he lectured lawmakers on respect.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) compared Ehrlich unfavorably with Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat who built a substantial legacy on his ability to work across the aisle with a Republican legislature.

As he leaves office, Ehrlich's most lasting imprint may be recognition of the jolt he delivered to the state's long-dominant Democrats.

A "shock to the system" was how former state senator Barbara Hoffman, a Democrat, described it.

"He planted the flag very clearly for a two-party system, and that's a good thing," said Rocky Worcester, an Ehrlich supporter who heads a nonpartisan advocacy group for business. "In Maryland, the absence of competition in politics and public policy had really become unhealthy."

Ehrlich's 2002 victory carried the potential of a new day for Maryland politics. The four-term congressman defeated then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on a platform of smaller government, more fiscal accountability and a promise of social moderation. Many who knew him during his two terms in the General Assembly recalled him as a consensus builder.

But his relations with the legislature quickly began to sour. One night in early March, seven weeks into his term, Ehrlich gathered reporters outside the gates of the governor's mansion and announced that a Senate committee was moments away from endorsing one of his key Cabinet nominees.

"We've lobbied this in a personal way," he proclaimed. A staff member brandished a committee roster and declared the secretary of the environment's confirmation a done deal.

Moments later, senators voted 10 to 9 to reject her, the first time the committee had turned down a Cabinet nominee in Maryland's history. At the time, Republican consultant Kevin Igoe called the misstep part of a "learning curve" for Ehrlich. Now he believes Ehrlich was "set up."

"People talked a lot about working together, but I believe, from the very beginning, the goal was to make Ehrlich a do-nothing governor," Igoe said recently.

Bitter clashes followed, notably over slot machine gambling, the issue that most dominated much of his tenure. Democratic lawmakers believe that the gambling initiative, along with others championed by Ehrlich, could have become law.

Hoffman said that past governors seeking to pass legislation married charm and muscle in a way that Ehrlich seemed unwilling or unable to pull off. When Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) decided to restructure the university system, she recalled, his aides summoned lawmakers upstairs, ordered Chinese food and said the doors would stay shut until they emerged with a bill.

"Governor Ehrlich didn't use the power of the office to make legislation happen the way governors before him had," Hoffman said. "There were committee chairmen who said they were never called up to talk with him. Not even once."

The governor says his strategy for dealing with the legislature varied, depending on the issue. "Sometimes we'd negotiate, sometimes we'd compromise, because a deal was better than no deal," he said, pointing to agreements he reached on money for stem cell research, power plant pollution controls and restrictions on sexual offenders. "And sometimes we were tough in our negotiating stance, because a deal was worse than no deal."

Ehrlich said he often used his veto power to block an "overreaching" Democratic legislature. In at least three instances -- involving bills to establish early voting, to dismantle the state's Public Service Commission and to force Wal-Mart to pay more for employee health care -- Ehrlich's vetoes were overturned, only to be vindicated by court rulings.

As with the Wal-Mart bill, the clashes between Ehrlich and Democratic leaders often involved legislation that the governor said would hamper the state's business climate.

Lee Cowen, a friend of Ehrlich's who lobbied for business interests, said the Wal-Mart proposal sent "a shock wave through the business community. . . . It made Maryland look like it had an unpredictable climate. He knew he had to fight it."

The governor's close ties with business interests might have hurt him politically as he engaged in a pitched battle with lawmakers over how to manage a pending increase in electricity bills.

One evening, as that fight raged, Ehrlich changed into shorts and a T-shirt, stepped out on the lawn of the governor's mansion and began tossing a football with his son Drew. As Ehrlich lobbed spirals, one of his closest confidants stood at his side in a dark pinstriped suit -- utility company lobbyist Carville Collins.

It was the type of image that resonated with voters, two-thirds of whom said they believed that "large business corporations" had too much influence in the Ehrlich administration, a Washington Post poll found in June.

In his campaign against Ehrlich, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) attacked those ties. One campaign mailer was designed to look like Ehrlich's appointment calendar. When opened, it showed him crabbing with a utilities lobbyist, golfing with a utility company chief executive and attending a symphony gala with more executives.

Ehrlich, certainly, made no secret of his alliance with business leaders. He made golf outings with executives a staple of his tenure. And he surrounded himself with corporate leaders and their advocates. In one memorable speech, he urged business executives to "get dangerous." He wanted them to help establish a viable Republican Party by financing GOP candidates and not hedging their bets with Democrats.

The admonition seemed fitting for Ehrlich, who built a reputation for a bare-knuckle style of politics.

Ehrlich was, after all, the man who for years kept Joseph Steffen on his payroll. Steffen was the self-described "Prince of Darkness" who boasted on a conservative Web site that he was Ehrlich's political "hit man."

The governor, who fired Steffen when he learned of the Internet boasts, said he never sanctioned the tactics and believed his aide's claims were overblown.

Ehrlich's supporters came to believe that the news media's fixation with those aspects of his tenure stole attention from his compassionate side. He revived use of the pardon, for instance, to help unburden otherwise upstanding Maryland residents, some of whom had trouble getting a job because of a decades-old conviction.

He championed drug treatment and job training for inmates, gave record funding to the state's community colleges and sent aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Herb McMillan, a Republican delegate from Annapolis who lost a bid for the state Senate this fall, said he believes Ehrlich's record on such issues helps explain why his approval rating continued to remain high, even on Election Day.

"People genuinely like him," McMillan said. "He's a family man, friendly, outgoing, straightforward. It would have been easy for him to just sit back, not rock the boat and get reelected. But he chose to push forward."

Richard Vatz, a Towson University professor and unabashed Ehrlich fan, said there may indeed be some who believe Ehrlich could have been reelected had he governed differently. And some who believe that Ehrlich's combative approach cost the GOP its chance at an emergence in Maryland -- the 2006 election largely erased any gains made four years ago.

"I think Ehrlich would have felt it wasn't worth it to compromise his views and style to win a second term," Vatz said. "I think if he had it to do all over again, he wouldn't change a bit."

Staff writers John Wagner, Elizabeth Williamson and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company