Ehrlich's candidacy now official

Congressman's bid for governorship invigorates GOP

March 26, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday that he is running for governor, pledging to restore fiscal responsibility in a state where he said one-party domination by Democrats has swelled the size of government and eroded accountability.

"We're mortgaging our future, and we know it," said Ehrlich, speaking from the walkway of his parents' brick rowhouse in Arbutus, where inside he once debated politics at the dinner table and proposed to his wife.

"We promise you real debates around the state on real issues, because the people deserve it," Ehrlich said. "A chief executive needs to think and articulate where the state needs to go."

In launching a gubernatorial campaign in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1, the four-term congressman ended more than a year of speculation and invigorated a state party that many believe has been teetering on the brink of irrelevancy.

"In energizes us at our roots," said Maryland Republican Party Chairman Michael S. Steele. "It excites the base of the party."

Ehrlich, 44, hopes to capitalize on the post-Sept. 11 popularity of President Bush. He is boosted by recent polls - including a January survey for The Sun - showing Maryland voters believe Republicans are as likely as Democrats to handle state government competently.

He said Marylanders deserve vigorous discourse on education, transportation and substance abuse. And in a veiled swipe at Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democrat who is considered her party's front-runner but is the subject of whispered criticism about her abilities and style, Ehrlich said he would make leadership a central theme.

"You can't touch it. You can't feel it. But you know it when you see it," he said. "At this time, in this state, we need new leadership."

The former Gilman School and Princeton University football standout said he was undaunted by Townsend's fund-raising edge and name recognition.

"I'm all about competition," he said. "We've been the underdogs before."

After addressing a crowd of 200 that included his former baby sitter and the man who gave him his first job prepping new trucks for delivery, Ehrlich whisked his fledgling campaign to Montgomery County, whose 465,000 registered voters will play a decisive role in the November vote.

Speaking at a Chevy Chase fire station, he pledged support for job growth and new technology, and said he would push to build the Intercounty Connector, a contentious highway project that has been debated for four decades.

Earlier in the day, during her own Montgomery tour, Townsend announced that she, too, wants to build the road - signaling not only her first major break with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, but the importance of gridlock-suffering Washington-area voters in this year's election.

Ehrlich seeks to become Maryland's first Republican governor since 1966, when Spiro T. Agnew won. Maryland's electorate is considered one of the nation's most liberal, and while Ehrlich hopes to portray himself as a moderate, his voting record came under scrutiny less than three hours after his announcement.

About 20 protesters gathered outside the fire station, chanting slogans and distributing fliers pointing out that the National Rifle Association has given him an "A" rating and that he voted to repeal a federal ban on semiautomatic weapons.

"We think that people should know where he really stands," said Ginni Wolf, of Marylanders against Handgun Abuse.

Inside the station, Nancy C. Lineman, executive director of the state affiliate of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said Ehrlich "should not be characterized as a pro-choice candidate."

"If you're a white woman of means, maybe you can get an abortion" under policies Ehrlich supports, she said. "But if you are poor and rely on government for your health care, you are fresh out of luck."

Ehrlich said his opponents came from "fringe groups."

"You can't please all the folks all the time," he said. "I've voted 25,000 times. [Townsend] has voted not one time, anywhere, any place. This will be a race about contrast and issues."

Yesterday's events demonstrated that Ehrlich will campaign both as an insider who knows the workings of Annapolis and an outsider not tainted by decades of one-party rule and a decreasingly popular Glendening-Townsend administration.

A former state delegate, Ehrlich said he has forged bipartisan relations in Annapolis. "I think he does have crossover appeal," said former Del. Kenneth H. Masters, a Baltimore County Democrat who served with Ehrlich on the House Judiciary Committee. "He worked well with everybody. If he can effectively get his message out, it will resonate."

Rep. Constance A. Morella, the Montgomery County Republican who joined Ehrlich at the fire station, said her colleague is not part of "the culture of corruption" in Annapolis. "He seeks the governorship based on his record of achievement, not entitlement," Morella said.

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