Hughes is a far better role model for Ehrlich

January 19, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

HERE ARE some observations and reminiscences inspired by the inauguration Wednesday of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as the first Republican governor of Maryland since 1968.

The inaugural address was an astonishing disappointment for its lack of inspiration. Young Ehrlich led us to believe that with the advent of his governorship, Maryland was on the threshold of dramatic change. This was not reflected in the gratitudes and platitudes Ehrlich pronounced from the podium on inauguration day.

Somehow one expected better from a product of Gilman and Princeton. This was an inauguration ceremony, not a football awards banquet.

But never mind. Eloquence and brilliance are not prerequisites for good governorship. Consider Ehrlich's immediate predecessor. As one of the state's political sages - a liberal Democrat, to be sure - observed in a conversation after Ehrlich was elected, "I think he is a man without conviction, which is not a bad thing for a governor."

Time will reveal to Marylanders what precisely are Governor Ehrlich's convictions.

On Wednesday, another sort of conviction came back to mind: The conviction - overturned on a technicality - of former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who was there for the inaugural and had praise heaped upon him by Ehrlich.

Ehrlich said he felt compelled to express his gratitude to certain individuals "because these people have meant so much to me and I've learned so much from them."

First to be thanked was Mandel: "For your firm friendship and willingness to help as we reform state government." This guy went to jail for manipulating the legislative process in a way that enriched him and his friends. His conviction was overturned because it turned out it was not a crime to rob the people of good government. The facts of what he did were not in dispute.

In the next breath, Ehrlich thanked former Gov. Harry Roe Hughes. The moment was pregnant with irony, and it is what really inspired this column.

Hughes was the man who - a little like Ehrlich - came from way, way behind in his 1978 campaign for governor. He knocked off Mandel's b'hoys and all other comers. Mandel was convicted but not imprisoned at the time of the 1978 campaign, and his political cadre was still very much a force in state politics. Hughes, a former state senator from the Eastern Shore, had resigned as state transportation secretary because one of Mandel's crony developers was trying to tamper with the bidding process on state projects.

Hughes delivered an eloquent speech the day he was inaugurated, Jan. 17, 1979. Among his comments were references to the state's corrupt past:

"The people of Maryland have had enough political manipulation; enough unfulfilled promises; enough scandal, shock and shame."

Of course, he was talking about the man Ehrlich thanked, Mandel, as well as Mandel's political inner circle.

I covered that inauguration day, but my assignment was not Hughes; it was Mandel, who had won a brief reprieve from his humiliation. A few days before Hughes was to take office, a federal appeals court overturned Mandel's conviction, and he was able to reclaim the office from which he had been barred as a convicted felon. The day before the Hughes inaugural, he moved back into the mansion and managed to infuriate Hughes by stepping into his limelight.

"I want to leave as I came in," Mandel explained to reporters at the time.

Mandel had the decency - or good sense - not to appear at the Hughes inaugural ceremony. (Among the living former governors, the last Republican to hold that office, Spiro T. Agnew, by then the disgraced former vice president, was not invited either.)

As Hughes took the oath of office, Mandel was sitting with his new wife, Jeanne, in the top-floor restaurant of the Hilton Hotel. I asked the waiter to send him Champagne. The bottle was opened, but there was no pop. It was flat!

Mandel muttered something like "Figures. It's from the Sunpapers."

I never saw Mandel again, but he is an abiding presence. My advice to Ehrlich would be to spend more time listening to Harry Hughes than to Marvin Mandel. Hughes is reputable.

Finally, the prominence of Ehrlich's pretty wife, Kendel, in Wednesday's ceremonies brings to mind another note of caution:

Don't go crazy with ideas for redecorating the Governor's Mansion - or Government House, as it was renamed during the Hughes administration.

Hughes' wife, Patricia, a woman of impeccable taste but no sense of politics, had the house redecorated to reflect Maryland's history and ignited such an uproar that people were paying more attention to her than to the governor.

After Hughes came William Donald Schaefer in 1987. The lifelong bachelor's girlfriend, the late Hilda Mae Snoops, moved into the mansion with her own ideas about how it should look. She was an eminent force.

Snoops' idea of good taste also caused an uproar which drove Schaefer to hitherto unknown levels of apoplexy in her defense.

Whatever's there probably ought to be left alone. It can't be that bad and at least it's still there. When Mandel left after his first conviction, he walked off with thousands of dollars in state-owned furniture, booze and almost $500 worth of dog food paid for by the citizens of Maryland.

In 1983, Mandel agreed to pay $10,000 to settle a civil suit brought by the state to recover the cost of the misappropriated furniture, liquor and the dog food. His lawyer delivered the settlement note in an empty can of dog food.

Do we really miss these people?

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