Staying sane in maddening campaign

May 19, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

CONGRESSMAN Robert L. Ehrlich feels obliged to begin some conversations with this assurance:

"I have not lost my mind."

Surely not.

But even he must wonder from time to time why he's doing what he's doing: running for governor in a state where Democrats will nominate either a Kennedy or a political rock star to run against him. And where no GOP candidate for governor has won since the 1966 victory of a man most Republicans would like to forget, Spiro T. Agnew, the vice president who was forced to resign amid charges he took kickbacks when he was Baltimore County executive.

Mr. Ehrlich insists he's both sane and electable. Also, he concedes, frustrated.

To win, he must have Democratic support in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 2-1. And he does have Democratic friends, some in high places. But they can't support him openly, or their backing comes with conditions.

On Wednesday morning, for example, he had breakfast at Jimmy's in Fells Point. He sat under a caricature and a sign that says in red letters, "Governor Schaefer's Table."

Former Democratic mayor, governor and now Comptroller William Donald Schaefer was not present. Couldn't be politically.

Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Ehrlich are friends, but Jimmy's most revered customer will almost certainly support the Kennedy in this race, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Nor does Mr. Ehrlich's frustration end there.

The small breakfast party included John Paterakis, the Baltimore baker and land developer who has helped to finance many candidates for mayor and governor in Maryland over many years. Like Comptroller Schaefer, Mr. Paterakis admires Bob Ehrlich, considers him a friend -- but, as a Baltimore businessman, he'll support the rock star, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, if the mayor decides to enter the race.

"Bobby's been a friend of all of us for so long," Mr. Paterakis says with a sigh later. "Isn't it a shame they all have to run against each other?"

Mr. Ehrlich leaves before he hears the baker's apparently sincere lament. Still, just having that much of an endorsement from John Paterakis counts as a victory in this atmosphere of veiled support and long odds.

In the end, knowing that anything can happen, Mr. Paterakis would not be the only man of financial means to support the Ehrlich candidacy. Businessmen tend to hedge their bets, putting money on both sides, Democrat and Republican. Everyone understands.

With some of these matters essentially out of his hands, Mr. Ehrlich can concentrate on issues.

In a discussion with The Sun's editorial board earlier in the week, he pressed his case that Ms. Townsend will be vulnerable to someone who can bring discipline to a government driven to the brink of financial catastrophe by careless Democratic spenders. He has some (again, unspoken) Democratic support for that view: Ranking party leaders say privately that Maryland faces a budget gap of at least $2 billion as the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening comes to an end.

"We can't grow our way out of it," Mr. Ehrlich said, referring to Ms. Townsend's prescription.

He would sell the state airplane, a symbolic first step, and follow up possibly by selling the airport itself. He'd trim the burgeoning state work force. He'd ask every state department to cut 3 percent of its spending.

And he would support slots at the tracks. Yes, he readily reported, he and Mr. Paterakis discussed gambling while at Jimmy's. The developer said he is less concerned with gambling than he once was. His current hotel venture is doing well without it. But he and the candidate agree generally on the issue of slots.

Mr. Ehrlich opposes casinos, but wants slots at the tracks to finance a final bailout of Maryland racing and to raise money for public education.

But here frustration arises anew. Apparently certain she will win and anxious not to alienate her, elements of the racing industry in Maryland are supporting Ms. Townsend -- though, unlike Mr. Ehrlich, she opposes slots, which many in the industry see as their last hope for survival.

It's the kind of political perversity that could make a Republican candidate for governor lose his mind.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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