Ehrlich Calls Multiculture Idea 'Bunk'
Radio Show Remarks Offend Latino Leaders

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2004; Page B01

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. thinks that multiculturalism is "bunk" and that immigrants should assimilate to their new surroundings by learning to speak English.

And he said so on Baltimore talk radio this week, wading without hesitation into the controversy triggered by Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's earlier public complaint about an awkward encounter he had with a Spanish-speaking fast-food worker.

"I reject the idea of multiculturalism," Ehrlich (R) said on WBAL-AM (1090) radio. "Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, you run into a problem. With respect to this culture, English is the language. Should we encourage young folks here to be assimilated, to learn the culture and values? Of course."

Ehrlich said his views on this topic are "very similar" to those of Schaefer (D), the cantankerous former governor who often uses meetings of the Board of Public Works as a public forum to gripe about the daily indignities of life. In this case, that meant sounding off about not being able to communicate with a Spanish-speaking McDonald's employee as he tried to buy a breakfast sandwich.

"I don't want to adjust to another language," Schaefer, 82, said Wednesday. "This is the United States. I think they ought to adjust to us."

Perhaps because of his age or his penchant for grumbling, Schaefer's comments did not raise the same level of ire as did those made by Ehrlich a day later.

"You've heard my views, and they're very similar to the comptroller's," Ehrlich said.

The governor's comments entered the political arena with lightning speed. Hispanic leaders called the remarks divisive, destructive and shocking.

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), a first-generation immigrant from El Salvador, said she believes the governor and comptroller need diversity training.

"I think what the governor said absolutely is offensive," Gutierrez said. "It's also a dangerous comment. What I am sensing is that these kinds of comments from leadership, from people who are in high-level positions, are really fueling an environment that is very dangerous and negative. It says it is okay to consider people who are different as something less."

The governor's office did little to quell the response, which it confirmed has been substantial.

"I've been talking about this all day," said Shareese DeLeaver, the governor's press secretary, when asked to explain what the governor meant by multiculturalism, a word she said has been misinterpreted.

"The governor believes that other ethnic groups are essential to the fabric of life in Maryland," DeLeaver said. "However, he believes that ethnic groups need to develop a singular culture as Americans and speak English."

How Ehrlich's remarks translate into policy decisions is unclear. He vetoed legislation last year that would have allowed some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Maryland's public colleges and universities. At the same time, he allowed a study on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants to go forward.

He appointed a Latina educator to the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents and applauded the creation of the Hispanic Republican Caucus. But he backed efforts to oust the caucus's original leader, who complained that no Latinos held Cabinet-level positions.

Political scientists from two Maryland universities differed on the political significance of the remarks in the face of the state's rapidly expanding Latino community. According to the 2000 Census, 227,916 Hispanics live in Maryland, or 4.3 percent of the state's population.

Prof. Matthew A. Crenson of Johns Hopkins University said Ehrlich "may have miscalculated, because there are many Americans who just are not comfortable with talk like that."

But James G. Gimpel of the University of Maryland at College Park has been studying the state's immigrant voting patterns and said Ehrlich's remarks will do nothing to harm his standing with voters.

"I don't think it's that much of a risk, because the Latinos who are going to be troubled by it are not the ones who would be voting for him," he said.

If reaction at Schaefer's Annapolis office is any sign, Gimpel might be right. Of 220 phone calls and e-mails that poured in on the subject, only 10 criticized the remarks, said his spokesman, Michael Golden.

Luis E. Borunda, president of Hispanic Republicans of Maryland, a group recently formed by the Maryland Republican Party, said he did not believe the governor intended to endorse a society that is monolithic.

"I believe what the governor did say is, we are Americans and that is our culture -- and I agree with that," Borunda said.

But even that message did not sit well with Ehrlich's political critics. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), for instance, said that his county is home to nearly half the state's foreign-born residents and that the views espoused by Ehrlich will be widely viewed as offensive.

"People from different backgrounds, different religions, and different parts of the world are what make this country strong," said Duncan, who is considering a challenge to Ehrlich in the 2006 election. "It is troubling to hear anyone degrade our diversity and multiculturalism."

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company