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
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
"The Democratic Party needed to get organized and get serious. ... They
learned they can lose a statewide election under the proper
All signs from November's election suggest that the party mastered the
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."
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,
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
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
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
"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."
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
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.
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