An awesome challenge

January 15, 2003

AT NOON TODAY, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. becomes governor of Maryland, assuming immense responsibility for the state's future.

As his predecessors have done since March 1777, he will take an oath promising to uphold the state's constitution.

Then his running mate, Michael S. Steele, will be sworn in as lieutenant governor - the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland by popular vote. The historic moment occurs coincidentally on the birthday of the late civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and surely it is a reminder of the special responsibility accorded both officials amid the pomp and ceremony symbolizing the people's granting of power with their votes.

They have promised a new tone for Annapolis.

During the campaign, they promised to be change agents after 36 years of uninterrupted Democratic rule. They vowed to erase what has been called a "culture of corruption" in state government and pledged a less self-dealing style of leadership. That change must come over time, step by step, decision by decision; cultures are not fundamentally altered in one dramatic action.

Governor Ehrlich will be judged by each step he takes toward that end, and by the atmosphere that prevails at the end of his term. He will need every scintilla of the strength and discipline he has promised.

He wants to make slot machines legal so that gambling revenue can help to resolve the state budget's projected $1.8 billion deficit. That chore alone - introducing more gambling without inviting more corruption - will test his skill and resolve. He will feel pressure as entrepreneurs queue up for a piece of the slots action: an estimated $800 million or more per year.

And if he cannot use slots to erase the deficit, Mr. Ehrlich would be well-advised to proceed with confidence in the good sense of Marylanders: More than rigid adherence to campaign promises, they prefer good judgment in the conduct of their affairs.

There may be commitments that Governor Ehrlich should not keep: his pledge of no significant tax increases is one example. The depth of the budget problem, which he has only begun to plumb, may ultimately make higher taxes the best alternative; he has suggested that global events such as a war with Iraq also could affect Maryland government.

To be a successful administrator, Mr. Ehrlich must negotiate a steep learning curve. He's a novice manager, and Maryland represents the equivalent of a $22 billion corporation, entrusted with the welfare of more than 5 million men, women and children. If such a charge is not burdensome to the soul, it should at least bring a sober mind.

So, on the day when Mr. Ehrlich accepts the mantle of leadership, Marylanders congratulate him again on a winning campaign, wish him well as governor and count on him to make their best interests his only guidepost.

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