Ehrlich takes office well-appointed with goodwill and power

Governor inherits might of the veto and patronage

Oath of office at noon today

January 15, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

When Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. takes an oath today to become Maryland's 60th governor, the longest stretch of single-party executive rule in state history will end in an instant.

The swearing-in ceremony, scheduled for noon inside the stately Senate chambers in the State House and repeated minutes later outside, will immediately confer upon the Timonium Republican more power than he has ever held.

Historians and political scientists agree that Maryland's governor wields enormous authority - almost single-handedly crafting a $22 billion budget and handing out thousands of patronage jobs.

"It's not only a powerful position vis-a-vis the other governors - it's definitely in the top five - it's also more powerful than the [U.S.] president's," said James G. Gimpel, an associate professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. The governor, Gimpel explained, holds more veto power than the president.

Harnessing that strength will be one of the new governor's first challenges, and something to be learned on the job.

That's because unlike his most recent predecessors, Ehrlich, 45, comes into office with no executive-level experience.

Outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening served as Prince George's County executive for three terms. William Donald Schaefer was the Do-It-Now mayor of Baltimore. Harry R. Hughes ran the state Transportation department for years. Maryland's last Republican governor, Spiro T. Agnew, elected in 1966, was a Baltimore County executive.

But Ehrlich's 16-year political career has been spent entirely as a legislator, one of 141 in the state House of Delegates, one of 435 in Congress. He has never chaired a committee, negotiated a labor contract or compiled a government budget.

Expecting a lot

In an interview yesterday, Ehrlich sought to dampen expectations that, as governor, he will automatically get his way.

"You have to cut that a little bit. It can get overblown because of the partisan breakdown in the state," he said. "You might have a lot of power, but you have to deal with a very independent and very Democratic legislature. That is a very relevant counter-balance."

Ehrlich's background as a lawmaker is a strength, he and others say, that will help him achieve his agenda.

"He comes to office with a lot of goodwill among legislators," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican who is transportation secretary-designate.

"Coming back here has been fascinating," Ehrlich said. "It's been very different, but also very familiar. Some of these faces haven't changed since the 1960s."

For most of Maryland, though, Ehrlich's face is brand new, eager and refreshing.

He smiles with awe at the perks of his new job, from around-the-clock protection to his new digs in one of the capital city's historic homes. (The Ehrlich family slept last night in Government House for the first time.)

Yesterday, he showed off the new business cards that had just landed on his transition-office desk. "Robert L. Ehrlich. Governor," read the embossed letters.

Pledging change

Ehrlich campaigned as an agent of change, pledging to restore fiscal responsibility to Annapolis, to swipe away the cobwebs from decades of Democratic rule. His story - working-class son of a commission-only car salesman and a legal secretary from Arbutus, whose gridiron prowess earned him a scholarship to one of Baltimore's best prep schools - resonated throughout the state.

He will use his inaugural address, he said, to deliver "a series of appreciations ... to various people and various groups who have had an influence on my life."

"And the second part is simply a connection between those lessons learned and a number of the major issues in the state," he said. "It's brief, it's to the point. It has a little humor. It has, hopefully, some phrases that people will remember."

He wrote the speech himself, he said, finishing it six weeks ago. It contains no lofty quotes from dead philosophers or European statesmen. "That's not my style," he said. "I write my own stuff, and it comes from the heart."

Five days of inaugural festivities end tonight with simultaneous black-tie balls at the Baltimore Convention Center and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The latter was added to accommodate an expected overflow crowd.

Yesterday's events included a Spinners concert at College Park and a morning prayer breakfast at Bowie State University attended by several dozen clergy representing the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The breakfast featured such prominent Maryland religious figures as Cardinal William H. Keeler, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, the Rev. C. Anthony Muse, Rabbi Herzel Kranz and Imam Maqbool Patel. One of the two keynote speakers was Ehrlich's pastor, the Rev. Stacey Nickerson, who is expected to hold the Bible today when the governor-elect takes his oath.

"Religion is very personal to Bob and Kendel," Ehrlich said, mentioning his wife. "I prayed that God would allow me to tap the talent he gave me."

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