New boss' report card

Governor: How will Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. handle policy, politics and partisanship in Maryland?

January 05, 2003|By Thomas F. Schaller | Thomas F. Schaller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This month, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. takes the oath of office as Maryland's 60th governor.

Around the state, the imminent arrival of the Ehrlich administration is cause for great anticipation by some, wariness by others. In either case, it's worth considering how best to rate Maryland's first Republican governor in more than three decades.

Old-school report cards featured grades for the three R's - readin', 'ritin and 'rithmatic. The best way to measure Ehrlich's progress, however, might be to score his administration on the three P's - policy, politics and partisanship.

Let's start with policy.

Though candidate Ehrlich made a lot of late-campaign pledges, his key promises were to reduce the budget deficit he inherits from his predecessor, Democrat Parris N. Glendening, and to build the much-ballyhooed Inter-County Connector.

Will Ehrlich stick diligently to these issues without becoming distracted by peripheral controversies? If Ehrlich invests too much political capital on items such as faith-based programs, he will test voters' patience. Ehrlich must also ensure that slot machine revenues significantly reduce state deficits, especially if he hopes to honor his pledge not to raise income or sales taxes.

A second policy measure will be the degree to which Ehrlich tilts the balance of state largess, if at all, toward the Baltimore-area constituency that put him in office.

The message of the 2002 election was that Baltimore's suburban voters are the repositories of political power in Maryland. They were willing to elect a Republican to prove it. Will Ehrlich relegate the Washington-area counties of Prince George's and, especially, Montgomery, to the second tier of the state's political pecking order, or will he try to expand his political power by reaching out to downstate voters who largely voted against his candidacy? Education spending, the core of the state budget, will be an important yardstick of Ehrlich's priorities.

As for his political report card, two potential developments merit attention.

The first is whether Ehrlich advances political-electoral reforms now that he and the Republican Party have finally gained control of the Governor's Mansion.

When he was state Republican Party chairman, Lt. Gov.-elect Michael S. Steele complained repeatedly that the use of multiple-member districts undermines the GOP's ability to win seats in the Maryland House of Delegates. Campaign finance and legislative ethics also remain perennially hot topics in Annapolis. Will Ehrlich expend energies pushing for political reforms, let Steele handle these issues or ignore them altogether?

Now that he is in power, Ehrlich may be less inclined to reform the political system that he leads. If he does want reform, his best option may be to hand off the issue to Steele so he can stay focused on his larger agenda.

Choosing sides

Because Ehrlich presented himself as a pragmatic moderate, a second political barometer will be how well he handles uprisings from the right-wing fringes of his party. Social conservatives with views outside the mainstream on issues such as gun control and abortion pose a particular challenge. Ehrlich has begun to undermine his dubiously self-applied label of "pro-choice" by publicly announcing support for parental-notification laws. Pressure from abortion opponents, and from Second Amendment advocates seeking concessions on gun trigger locks and related restrictions, may force Ehrlich to choose sides when he would rather stay above the political fray.

Likewise, some conservative politicians, emboldened by the GOP's rising fortunes, will inevitably try to make noise. In particular, listen for stirrings from state senators such as Frederick County's Alex X. Mooney or Baltimore County's Andrew P. Harris. If these firebrands raise their voices, will Ehrlich shout them down publicly? If he supports them or merely falls silent, critics who warned that Ehrlich is nothing more than a conservative wolf in a moderate sheep's disguise will be vindicated - and aroused to fight back.

Building his party

Finally, there is partisanship.

Ehrlich has made headlines by choosing prominent Democrats to serve in key positions within his administration. Because the Republican bench in Maryland is so thin, Ehrlich's early bipartisanship is more necessity than virtue. A truer test of the new governor's partisan skill will be his ability to create a viable, two-party system in Maryland. If Ehrlich develops emerging Republican hopefuls into certifiable leaders, he'll earn high marks.

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