Upbeat Ehrlich Stresses Cooperation in Speech

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006; B01

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. used the final State of the State address of his term to declare himself a "change agent," and in the process, he gave Democrats a preview yesterday of how he'll forge his bid for reelection.

"Most pundits regard an election year session as an opportunity for the two parties to frame issues and garner political advantage in advance of the approaching election," the Republican governor told the General Assembly. "The people we represent see things differently. They want results. They want responsiveness."

The address presented a repackaged Bob Ehrlich -- a Republican governor eager to find common ground with Democrats in the legislature, craving an end to "Capitol Hill-style" politics in Annapolis and willing to spend on an array of new programs. Among those are initiatives previously championed by Democrats, including strict limits on university tuition increases, a reduction in power plant pollution and funding of stem cell research.

He credited the House speaker and Senate president with helping pass a Chesapeake Bay restoration plan, saying that without the Democratic leaders "that bill does not get done."

And he made not one mention by name of the topic that dominated the first three years of his tenure: slot machine gambling.

As he has done repeatedly in recent weeks, the governor pitched the idea that Maryland is in an economic revival. As if channeling his father, who sold used cars on commission, he called conditions in the state "hot, red hot." He pointed to lows in unemployment and welfare caseloads, the creation of nearly 100,000 jobs and a soaring real estate market.

Ehrlich spoke before a packed joint session of the General Assembly's 188 members, two former governors and members of his Cabinet. His parents were in the front row of the balcony. Also in the gallery were the two Democrats vying to challenge Ehrlich in November: Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Duncan called the governor's account of his record on education, the environment and civility "an election year makeover."

When the governor revisited a topic that brought him considerable attention during last year's State of the State address -- the bitter and partisan political tone in Annapolis -- O'Malley rose from his seat and applauded vigorously.

Afterward, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) called the governor "a hypocrite," saying the Capitol Hill-style politics in Annapolis can be traced directly to Ehrlich's arrival.

Other Democrats were more subdued about the speech. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he thought it was "very positive." But he questioned whether Ehrlich could legitimately claim credit for turning a $4 billion deficit into a $2 billion surplus.

Nonpartisan state budget analysts say Ehrlich took office facing annual projected shortfalls of about $1 billion, and the state finished last year with a surplus of about $1.2 billion.

"He's reaping the benefit of trends in the national economy," Busch said.

Republican lawmakers said they found it impressive to hear the governor's accomplishments wrapped together in a 50-minute address. House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (Calvert) said it was clear that "the governor got a lot of stuff done in a very hostile environment."

Ehrlich seemed to put special emphasis on accomplishments intended to benefit the state's large, and mostly Democratic, African American community. He specifically mentioned aid to historically black colleges and universities, and he described the creation of a new school curriculum centered on the exhibits of a recently opened African American history museum in Baltimore.

"This is American history," he said.

Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore) said he noticed the attention to African American causes in the governor's speech and appreciated them. But he wasn't sure it reflected the Ehrlich administration's record. "I can only say, welcome aboard," Anderson said. "It's about time."

One aspect of the speech generated alarm among supporters of embryonic stem cell research. Ehrlich has proposed spending $20 million next year on stem cell research, but he has said he would leave it to a state-founded technology corporation to determine whether the money should be spend on embryonic cell work -- which some Republicans oppose on moral grounds -- or less controversial work on adult stem cells.

In his address, Ehrlich said dollars would be steered to "promising projects with the greatest opportunity for therapeutic breakthroughs."

Work is further along on adult than embryonic stem cells, though many scientists believe embryonic cells hold greater promise. House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) said he believes that Ehrlich was using "code" for saying he is going to support only adult stem cell research.

"That's why we need legally binding language as to how this would be spent," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), who is sponsoring the stem cell bill. "That's called legislation."

An Ehrlich aide said that "there were no code words," adding that the governor remains open to embryonic research if that is what scientists recommend.

Ehrlich did not stick closely to his prepared remarks, but there was nothing like the impromptu lecture on respect that made headlines when he addressed the legislature last year. At moments, as he waded deeply into his legislative agenda, his 6-year-old son, Drew, put his head down in his mother's lap.

Midway through, though, he shook up the speech with the unorthodox decision to relinquish the microphone to an official from Louisiana who was on the receiving end of Maryland's medical and financial assistance after Hurricane Katrina.

In a soft bayou drawl, Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard described how "out of heaven, via Maryland, came this plane filled with" volunteers. "You came to the forefront at a time that we desperately needed it."

Ehrlich returned to the podium six minutes later to declare: "Do you know what the state of the state of Maryland is? It's compassion."

Staff writers Ann E. Marimow and John Wagner contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company