Wind beneath his right wing may steer our new governor

January 16, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SAY THIS for yesterday's inauguration of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as governor of Maryland: At least nobody sang, "You are the wind beneath my wings."

Gazing across a sea of frozen faces yearning to embrace the first Republican governor here in 36 years and then get inside while they still had sensation in all their toes, Ehrlich did not serenade his first lady the way Parris Glendening did eight years ago. But he delivered an inaugural address that attempted to sweet-talk everyone in sight and, in the swell tradition of any decent Chamber of Commerce luncheon, challenge or offend absolutely no one.

He spent the first half of his 12-minute speech thanking all who helped him get this far - including his proud mom and dad, his Arbutus Little League coaches, his former classmates at Gilman and Princeton and Wake Forest School of Law, his former colleagues at the Ober, Kaler, Grimes and Shriver law firm - and each of the last several governors, not including Glendening, who left after the speech.

On the historic occasion of Michael Steele's swearing-in as the first African-American lieutenant governor, Ehrlich took note of the date - Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday - and said Steele embodied the principles of "hope, determination and opportunity to which Dr. King devoted his life."

Was it the right thing to say? Absolutely. But Ehrlich covered the historic moment with about a dozen words, and it seemed like the merest of starting points when he might have tugged at everyone's heart about difficult journeys and the melting of the American heart.

In the second half of Ehrlich's address, we learned he wants to keep citizens safe, get criminals off the street and make sure youngsters get a quality education. These are fine goals, however briefly they were tossed off. What we will now begin to learn is: Which Ehrlich will try to implement them?

In a previous life, he was a moderate state delegate who went to Washington and became a Newt Gingrich conservative. Yesterday, he gave no particular hint of his political identity as governor. He said he will try to help people with disabilities. He said homeland defense is important. He said he respects every dollar as a taxpayer dollar.

Those are fine sentiments. But they offer little sense of his vision or clue to his identity: Maryland moderate or D.C. right-winger?

"That's the problem," said Mary Jo Neville, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Teachers Association. "Everything depends on which Ehrlich is here. The one who served here as a delegate was pretty good on education. The one who went to Washington got a 27 percent rating from the National Education Association and then got upset when we gave him an F."

"What happened yesterday or the day before doesn't mean anything," former Gov. Marvin Mandel said. "Look, I'm probably the only one here who served under two Republican governors," Theodore R. McKeldin in the 1950s and Spiro T. Agnew in the 1960s. "You make peace. We're not like Congress here, where they polarize themselves along party lines. He's a centrist, he'll work things out."

With a General Assembly still dominated by Democrats, much of Ehrlich's success will count on cooperation. Many who dislike his politics still talk of a likable schoolyard personality.

"He's accommodating," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat who, like Ehrlich, got to Washington via Annapolis. "He was a moderate here, and he was much different in Washington. I don't know which is the real guy. He has a history of working with the people he's with. He'll have to. He won't be successful if he doesn't."

"He tells everybody I was his mentor," said Del. John Arnick, a Democrat. He and Ehrlich served on the House Judiciary Committee during Ehrlich's first years in Annapolis. "He learns to work things out. He's too liberal for the Republicans and too conservative for the Democrats - which is probably the way to be. In Washington, it's `My party, right or wrong.' It's not that polarized here."

"You know why he's here, instead of Washington?" said Rep. Albert Wynn, a Democrat and Ehrlich's former House colleague. "Because he wasn't conservative enough for the Republican leadership. They want ideological right-wingers like Gingrich and Tom DeLay. He moved to the right under Gingrich, but not far-right enough. I think he's smart enough to understand, he's got to move to the middle here."

Maybe he will. From yesterday's inaugural speech, we got very little clue. It sounded a little like a feel-good campaign pitch, and not the speech of somebody who actually got the job. But, on a frigid January day, at least it was short, and it offended no one. And nobody had to hear, "You are the wind beneath my wings."

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