Embracing the role of man in charge
Ehrlich works to help calm an Isabel-rattled public

By David Nitkin
Sun Staff

September 20, 2003

Rain beading off his black state police jacket, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had just embarked on a walking tour of storm preparations in downtown Annapolis when an aide's cell phone rang.

Press secretary Greg Massoni placed the phone in his boss's palm, and a remarkable example of media multitasking was under way. Ehrlich launched into a radio interview by portable telephone, as two television cameras took position in front of him and several print reporters jotted his words on water-splashed notebooks.

As governor, Ehrlich has warmly embraced his role as the public face of governmental readiness in the face of Hurricane Isabel.

The governor waited until shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday to sign an order declaring a state of emergency, the timing allowing newscasts to carry the proceedings live.

He has invited television cameras to record him conducting conference calls on storm conditions. He has traveled extensively, and today he plans to fly to Allegany County to view flood damage. He is a nearly constant presence on radio and television, warning an anxious public to stay off the roads, to help their neighbors.

"I'm a Democrat. I'd love to say the guy is grandstanding, but frankly, I think he's being a good leader at this point," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson of Baltimore, a former television reporter and anchor in the 1970s and 1980s.

Twice during his first year in office, Ehrlich's visibility has heightened during spectacular weather events. During his early weeks in office, the governor managed the state through the Presidents Day storm, which dumped more than 2 feet of snow on the region. This week, a hurricane churning up the Chesapeake Bay forced him to declare a state of emergency.

Through it all, the governor has not been shy about communicating with the public -- early and often.

"They want to see honesty," the governor said. "They want to see the facts, and they want to be comforted."

Ehrlich's omnipresence during a crisis -- along with that of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and suburban county executives -- is part of what professor Richard E. Vatz, who teaches courses in persuasion and media criticism at Towson University, calls "the symbolic points of leadership."

"It is important to project control; it is important to project you are on top of things," Vatz said. "The paradox is that when you are talking about natural disasters, your method of control is limited."

Vatz gives high marks to Ehrlich, as well as O'Malley, for displaying the right mix of energy and compassion during the storm and its aftermath.

Others are less impressed.

"PR is what [Ehrlich] does," said David R. Paulson, a media consultant and former spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "I don't get a sense of real gravitas or real weight, or [that] he's out there because he gives a damn. ... He seems practiced at it. It's saying the right things and doing the right things at the right time."

While few doubt that Ehrlich and other local leaders count public welfare as their top priority, it is hard to deny that visibility during disasters offers rewards for a politician.

Lagging in opinion polls, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani saw an enormous boost in popularity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"This is why incumbents do so well. Incumbents have the ability to indicate when there has been a crisis that they are on top of things, and taking all necessary actions," Vatz said.

But with the benefits come risks. Ehrlich or O'Malley could appear as camera hogs, needlessly injecting politics into a tragedy. Or with so many hours of television and radio time to fill, political leaders stand the chance of saying something silly as the tape rolls.

But the biggest risk, said Anderson, the former newscaster, "is not being visible at all."

Few would accuse Ehrlich of that. But even the governor's most vocal critics don't charge him with excess.

"This is an emergency situation," said Paulson. "You have to hear from your governor, your mayor, your county executive."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a frequent Democratic foil of Ehrlich, said the governor and county executives seem to be working together well.

"I think the governor has done the right thing. He is assuring Marylanders of what to do in a case of emergency," Busch said. "I don't think this is an event that politics should play any part of, because families and lives are at risk."

Still, political observers noted the dueling television images of Ehrlich and O'Malley in the Baltimore region.

"O'Malley is not letting Ehrlich get any more time than he is getting," said Anderson. "Hurricane Isabel marks the beginning of the campaign for governor in 2006."

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun