Ehrlich fires up attack rhetoric in recent letter

The Political Game

Strategy: Potential gubernatorial candidate takes shots at Townsend.

September 25, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

HIS CANDIDACY for governor isn't 100 percent certain yet, but Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is already showing an eagerness to go on the offensive.

In a recent fund-raising letter, the Republican congressman takes some hard-edged shots at Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who in recent polls leads Ehrlich as well as her prospective Democratic rivals.

The letter, which Ehrlich says has had "unbelievable" success in bringing in money, asks for donations to help him "test the waters" for a 2002 candidacy. On Friday, Ehrlich announced that he was "inclined" to run and was forming an exploratory committee to consider his options.

Fund-raising letters, normally sent only to the party faithful, often take on a harsher tone than the messages candidates project to the public. But political veterans said Ehrlich's letter is unusually personal for this stage in a campaign.

"I grew up in a row house, not a castle in Camelot," Ehrlich writes. "I am the son of working parents who treasured the traditional values of work, faith, education and community."

And further down:

"To me public service is not just some personal family legacy to pursue. It's about problem-solving and helping people."

Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College, said the Camelot rhetoric is a bit of a reversal. "Republicans usually charge class warfare against Democrats," he said. Smith said the letter signals that Ehrlich is planning a highly negative, personal campaign. "The only way he's going to win is going negative early. He has to deconstruct her before he has a chance of winning," Smith said.

But a strategy of comparing childhood hardships with Townsend shows "wretched political judgment," Smith said.

"He might have grown up in a rowhouse, but his father wasn't assassinated," he said.

In an interview last week, Ehrlich, 43, made no apologies. "Fund-raising letters are very aggressive letters. They're meant to raise money," he said.

He said he welcomes the opportunity to contrast himself with Townsend in background and family history as well as philosophy. "When you're running a $22 billion corporation," he said, referring to the size of the state budget, "it should be a function of merit, not legacy."

Although Ehrlich has been projecting a more moderate image, the letter is a reminder that his roots run deep in conservative politics. It mixes promises of a "more moderate course in Annapolis" with rhetoric that could have been lifted straight out of Ellen R. Sauerbrey's 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial campaigns:

"Our state can't compete when it's regarded as a traffic-clogged `tax hell' with declining schools and an anti-business attitudes," the letter says.

Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, said he was struck by the "conservative stridency" of the letter and the "ad hominems" it flings at the Kennedys.

Haller said Ehrlich has been trying to do a "tiptoe walk" between the right wing of his party and Maryland's more moderate electorate. The pollster said he sees no political gain for Ehrlich in making such attacks.

"He has to be extraordinarily careful about overreaching to the conservative wing of the Republican Party," Haller said.

The fund-raising letter and fighting words stand out amid the general atmosphere of bipartisanship that has prevailed since the terrorist strikes Sept. 11. A spokesman for Townsend pointed to those attacks as a reason she would not comment on the letter.

Ehrlich said the letter began going out before that date and that he has continued to use it in the weeks since the attacks.

Montgomery Democrat eyes a run for Md. Senate

Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, an outspoken two-term Democrat from Montgomery County, is telling supporters she may attempt to vault into the Maryland Senate next year -- depending on how the redistricting lines turn out.

Kagan, 40, is asking financial backers to pony up early, noting that a hefty campaign treasury deterred opponents when she first ran in 1994. Because of its growth in population, Montgomery County will gain a Senate seat when new district lines are adopted next year. Kagan, who is now in Democratic Sen. Jennie M. Forehand's 17th District, is hoping to find herself in the new district.

The race could turn into a dogfight because two other Democratic delegates, Dana Lee Dembrow and Tod David Sher, also are considering a race. The new district is expected to be heavily Democratic.

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