From the Baltimore Sun

Stopped short of his goal
Ehrlich had hoped to leave legacy of strong GOP presence in Md.

By Andrew A. Green
Sun reporter

January 14, 2007

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland's first Republican to be elected governor since 1966, came to Annapolis four years ago with one overriding goal: to establish Maryland as a two-party state where conservatives and liberals governed in balance.

But just days from leaving office after voters decided they would prefer a legislative and executive branch controlled by Democrats, even Ehrlich acknowledged that the competition of ideas that he wanted - the legacy he hoped to leave - will disappear.

"There is a sense of unfinished business around me, around my senior staff, around a lot of my supporters," Ehrlich said during an hourlong interview in Government House last week, sitting in a mansion that is being emptied box by box to make room for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his family.

"I am very fearful that without control of ... any mechanism of state government, our ability to engage or debate will be minimized."

In taking stock of his record, Ehrlich ticked off a list of accomplishments that he believes will endure: economic growth, improvements for the disabled community, environmental initiatives, judicial appointments and more.

But regardless of his policy successes, legislators, lobbyists, advocates and others tend to view the governor's legacy in largely political terms, with many Democrats and some Republicans concluding that instead of fostering competition, all Ehrlich managed to do was force Democrats to get their act together.

In 2002, Ehrlich beat what is generally regarded as a weak campaign by then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in a year when Marylanders were dissatisfied with the outgoing Democratic administration and when post-9/11 feelings were keeping the Republican president's approval ratings unusually high.

"The Democratic Party had fallen asleep," said former state Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Democrat-turned-Republican from Prince George's County.

"The Democratic Party needed to get organized and get serious. ... They learned they can lose a statewide election under the proper circumstances."

All signs from November's election suggest that the party mastered the lesson.

Democrats won the races for governor, U.S. Senate, an open congressional seat, comptroller and attorney general. They maintained their 33-14 edge in the state Senate and picked up six seats in the House of Delegates, giving them a 104-37 advantage.

There is now not a single elected Republican in Montgomery County. Charles County elected its first Democratic sheriff in 126 years.

Ehrlich's victory "may, in the long run for Republicans, be a bad thing," former Republican Del. Donald E. Murphy said. "It's been 40 years. It could be another 40 years."

Lesson for rivals
Del. Curtis S. Anderson, the chairman of the Baltimore City delegation, said that Ehrlich's victory had another effect on the Democratic Party: It made its leaders pay more attention to African-Americans.
Ehrlich picked Michael S. Steele, an African-American former chairman of the state GOP, as his running mate in 2002, the same year Townsend picked a white male former Republican.

That's a mistake Democrats, who rely heavily on the African-American vote, didn't make twice.

Although many party leaders supported Benjamin L. Cardin, who is white, over Kweisi Mfume, who is black, for the U.S. Senate, O'Malley picked an up-and-coming black delegate, Anthony G. Brown, as his running mate.

Since the election, legislative leaders have elevated African-Americans to committee chairmanships and other plum posts.

"It took a Republican to show the Democratic Party who the Democratic Party is made of," said Anderson, who is black.

"I thank Bob Ehrlich for that."

Constant battles
The aftereffects of the Ehrlich years hang over Annapolis in other ways. Democrats in the legislature battled almost constantly with Ehrlich and other Republicans over the past four years, but as Annapolis prepares for O'Malley's inauguration, legislators say that they are looking forward to a period of peace and calm.
Ehrlich butted heads with Democrats on slot machine gambling, medical malpractice reform, utility rate relief, the minimum wage, college tuition, voting procedures, health care, hiring and firing practices, and more.

He called two special sessions of the legislature during his term - something none of his predecessors did in decades.

He vetoed the products of the session twice and was overridden both times.

He opened a State of the State speech with a 10-minute lecture on the respect legislators need to show him.

He employed Joseph F. "Prince of Darkness" Steffen Jr., a self-described "political hit man" for the governor, along with others who looked for people in state agencies to fire.

He slammed Busch for blocking slots and Miller for blocking lawsuit limits.

Former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he thinks the rancor that gripped Annapolis was bigger than Ehrlich. Politics nationally went to partisan extremes, and Ehrlich suffered, he said. But now, Taylor said, he thinks the mood has shifted back to a spirit of cooperation.

"It's a terrible price for a good guy like Bob Ehrlich to have to pay," Taylor said. "But I think O'Malley benefits greatly from it, and from his public comments so far, I think he's demonstrated that he does understand the horror we've gone through."

His successes
For all of the conflict - and all the times the Democrats in the legislature got their way - Ehrlich did have some notable successes in pushing his agenda, which he and others believe will outlast him.
At the top of the list is the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act, popularly known as the "flush tax," which pays for upgrades to sewage treatment plants with the goal of reducing nitrogen levels in the bay.

He also pushed through charter school legislation, a change that Ehrlich said he hopes will provide significant competition in the public school system, particularly in Baltimore, and improve conditions for all students.

In both of those cases, he didn't get everything he wanted but was willing to compromise with the legislature.

Other successes came in arenas Ehrlich controlled completely. He revived the practice of gubernatorial pardons and commutations and got generally good reviews for his judicial appointments.

"The one area in which there were few if any complaints by the bar was in his judicial appointments," said Daniel Clements, a former head of the state trial lawyers association who represented several former state workers who sued Ehrlich over their terminations. "He picked qualified people who are doing good work."

Clements said first lady Kendel Ehrlich, who was heavily involved in the process, should get much of the credit for the pardons and the appointments.

Even before the governor leaves office, some other parts of his legacy look shaky. Ehrlich's transportation department undertook a politically sensitive overhaul of Baltimore's bus routes with the goal of making them more efficient. They ran into major public opposition but began implementing the changes anyway.

But Ehrlich announced this month that, at the O'Malley administration's request, he is putting the next phase of changes on hold.

Ehrlich also poured billions into road construction projects, and he said he is worried that O'Malley will skew the balance too heavily toward mass transit.

Also, Ehrlich's determination to prevent sales or income tax increases is looking unlikely to outlast him. Lawmakers are already talking seriously about a major tax overhaul - which could include increases in one or both of those taxes - next year.

Making plans
Ehrlich said someone needs to stand up to the Democrats and let Marylanders know there is another way to run the government. But it won't be Ehrlich.
He said he is working on his plans for life after the governorship. He said he will probably sign on with a law firm and perhaps start a consulting firm with some of his top staffers.

He said that he might travel the country giving speeches, and that he has had extensive conversations with former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani about helping out with his presidential bid.

Last month, he closed on a house in Annapolis, just a few miles from the State House. But he said he won't be engaging in the debates or critiquing the O'Malley administration.

"It's just not class," he said.

Ehrlich is, however, making moves to shape how his legacy is perceived. His biography in the Maryland Manual, generally a just-the-facts publication of the names and phone numbers of government officials, includes the line, "Bob Ehrlich's historic election as governor in 2002 ended the monopoly's grasp on government and began a legacy of reform."

At a thank-you event for supporters at the Timonium Fairgrounds today, he will distribute copies of a 48-page book his campaign workers compiled in the past few weeks listing his accomplishments, and he will show a 12-minute video about his legacy.

But all that doesn't presage a comeback attempt. Ehrlich said he wouldn't be opposed to running again for public office, but he said supporters shouldn't get their hopes up.

"Given the trend lines here ... there's not a place for someone with my views in political life in Maryland," Ehrlich said. "If the next trend line begins earlier than people think, it's something we could look at.

"But as I always said in my administration, we have to deal with Maryland how it is, not how we wish it to be."
Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun