Ehrlich declares `opportunity ticket' with party chief

Michael Steele in bid for lieutenant governor, never held elected office

Emphasizes modest roots

Election 2002

July 02, 2002|By David Nitkin and Howard Libit | David Nitkin and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. picked state Republican Party Chairman Michael S. Steele as his gubernatorial running mate yesterday, declaring that two self-made candidates were joining forces to form an "opportunity ticket" crossing racial and geographic boundaries.

Steele, 43, is a Prince George's County resident and former corporate attorney who has spent two years trying to rebuild a teetering GOP organization shut out of statewide office since Charles McC. Mathias left the U.S. Senate 16 years ago.

He has never held elected office but is credited with engineering the party's most recent victory, a decision last month by the state Court of Appeals to overturn legislative district maps drawn by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and other top Democrats.

Ehrlich, 44, said he chose Steele because the two men are friends who share issue positions and similar backgrounds.

Both emerged from working-class roots to attend top schools and forge successful careers, Ehrlich said, reinforcing a prominent campaign theme that contrasts his modest background with the affluent upbringing of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, his likely Democratic opponent.

Steele's mother worked 45 years earning minimum wage in a District of Columbia laundry. His father, who died when Steele was 4, once tended gardens at John F. Kennedy's Georgetown home. His stepfather earned extra money as a limousine driver, sometimes shuttling Robert F. Kennedy -Townsend's father - to events.

"Today is born the opportunity ticket in the state of Maryland," Ehrlich said. "It's history standing before you today. Working together, Republicans, Democrats, independents, black, white - it doesn't matter. The old lines are gone. This is a new era. It's a new generation."

Known for his pointed jabs, Steele wasted little time before training attacks on the Democratic ticket of Townsend and retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, the former Naval Academy superintendent tapped by the lieutenant governor as a running mate last week.

Sweating under a blazing Annapolis sun at a morning news conference, Steele stripped off his suit jacket and announced: "This race just got a little bit hotter."

"I know that Bob Ehrlich will run a state government that will not pay out taxpayer dollars to settle lawsuits to bail out elected officials from their oversight responsibilities, unlike our opponents, who already have," Steele said.

In March, the state agreed to $4 million in direct payments, education costs and attorney fees to settle a lawsuit brought by young inmates who said they were beaten while in the state juvenile justice system. Townsend has been the administration's point person on juvenile justice and has been criticized for her handling of the department.

"Today, I declare a new HotSpot in Maryland," said Steele, a reference to a criminal justice program championed by Townsend. "This HotSpot is the record of our opponents. It is a record of eight years of silence, eight years of complicity in which legacy-building with bricks and mortar took precedence over the human needs of Marylanders, eight years of being AWOL - absent without leadership."

Townsend's campaign declined to comment on Steele's appointment.

"Our thoughts are with our selection," said campaign spokesman Michael Morrill. "The lieutenant governor picked somebody with real leadership experience, a real record and a real vision for where Maryland should go. There is a clear, definite difference between the two campaigns on those issues."

Steele's selection brings the issue of race into sharp relief in the campaign for governor.

Townsend enjoys strong support among African-Americans in Maryland, and without significant primary opposition, she chose a white male running mate who changed his party registration from Republican to Democrat three weeks ago.

Politicians who had urged Townsend to select a black running mate are still reconciling her choice as they evaluate whether Ehrlich can gain a foothold in the black community.

"Michael [Steele] is a well-respected individual," said Del. Obie Patterson, a Prince George's County Democrat and head of the black legislative caucus. The pick, he said, "raises the conscience and the awareness of the lack of the Democratic Party to field a diverse ticket."

Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a Baltimore Democrat who endorsed Ehrlich in May and stood at his side at yesterday's announcement, said, "The selection today does what Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wouldn't do. Democrats only talk."

Ehrlich said he was fulfilling a pledge to run an expansive campaign. Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 in Maryland, so the congressman needs heavy crossover support to prevail. "I promised you a campaign willing to go places Republicans ... have never gone in the past," he said yesterday.

But some political observers questioned whether the strategy would be successful.

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