Forum asks candidates to address disability issues

Ehrlich's wife, as stand-in, Townsend pledge support

October 11, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Rows of wheelchairs lined the rear of the overflowing function room at Inner Harbor Hyatt Regency, and the visually impaired tapped canes along crowded aisles.

The temperature rose inside, along with passions of disabled voters, family members and advocates who wanted to know how Maryland's candidates for governor would address the housing, transportation, education and rehabilitation issues that touch their daily lives.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Kendel Ehrlich, standing in for her husband, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., fielded question after detailed question yesterday at a Maryland Disabilities Forum that attracted an audience of more than 800.

A woman asked who could figure out why her son came off his bus one day apparently beaten. A man asked if he would have to leave Baltimore to secure an adequate public education for his disabled son.

"These things affect our lives," said Joel D. Myerberg, chairman of the forum. "Not just our wallets or something else, but our lives."

Townsend and Ehrlich both promised that the next administration would work to keep people with disabilities in their communities, rather than in institutions. They pledged better access to public classrooms and extracurricular activities, and said they support more jobs and improved transportation.

"The objective was to make sure the disability community felt like they had some voice in the campaign," said C. David Ward, vice chairman of the forum. "Along with trying to get our candidates to recognize that there is a large, powerful disabled community out there who votes, whose parents vote, whose children vote."

The crowd's size - among the largest of any interest group on the campaign trail this year - delivered that message.

"I was a little surprised," said Ehrlich, who learned Wednesday that she would replace her husband, who was in Congress considering a resolution on war with Iraq. "It really does enlighten you. These people are rightfully dependent on government."

Townsend, whose campaign distributed materials in Braille, large-print and computer software formats, blasted Washington for failing to meet its commitment on special education, providing only 15 percent of the costs, instead of the 40 percent promised, she said.

"The federal government should do their part," she said.

Townsend said budget cuts would not affect people with disabilities living in community settings. When she promised that transportation services would be improved, someone shouted out, "It hasn't happened so far."

"I haven't been governor so far," Townsend responded to applause.

Kendel Ehrlich said the current administration has failed to serve the disabled community well. "Maryland is the fourth most segregated state in the nation when it comes to children with disabilities," she said. "And that is a failure of the Glendening-Townsend administration."

Her husband's plan to allow slot machines at racetracks, she said, will provide money to improve education. But the current administration, she said, is banking on a cigarette tax increase that won't meet the requirements of a school-funding reform plan approved this year.

"The Glendening-Townsend administration has sent a message: Smoke more, and you get better education," she said.

As dissatisfaction with some of Ehrlich's answers grew, Ward, serving as moderator, moved to defuse the situation. The candidate's wife, he said, should be given credit for showing up and doing her best.

"I hope you're going to wring your husband's neck," he said.

"He owes me big time on this one," she replied.

In other campaign events yesterday, the State Law Enforcement Officers' Labor Alliance held a pep rally for Townsend in Parkville, joined by leaders of the Coalition of Black Maryland State Troopers and the statewide Fraternal Order of Police.

The union - representing about 1,850 troopers and other state law-enforcement officers - praised the efforts of Townsend and Gov. Parris N. Glendening to improve pay and benefits.

"Our lieutenant governor has been the go-to person for law enforcement," said John A. Bartlett Jr., president of the statewide FOP.

Sun staff writers Howard Libit and Sarah Koenig contributed to this article.

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