Ehrlich says partnership with Steele was a natural

But observers suggest honeymoon won't last

February 15, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

When addressing Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, protocol dictates his name be preceded by the title "Governor." And in Annapolis these days, that title seems to be anything but an overstatement.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is happily sharing the spotlight with Steele - one of his close friends - as the two set out to build their young administration.

The governor has given Steele significant power, and he has been warning Annapolis insiders they should take the lieutenant governor seriously.

The two are at each other's side during most major policy announcements and, by the way they speak at such events, people often have a hard time telling who is in charge.

"We are the two musketeers who work together fighting long odds, but always working together," Steele said in an interview. "At the end of the day, I've got his back and he's got mine."

A case in point came two weeks ago when Steele spoke off the cuff and told a reporter he wants another study of whether the death penalty is unfairly applied.

While the next day's headlines surprised Ehrlich - an ardent supporter of capital punishment - he made sure Steele didn't have to stand alone. Despite misgivings, Ehrlich quieted the ensuing news media frenzy by directing Steele to begin a preliminary study.

The governor is also putting Steele, who led Ehrlich's transition team, in charge of some of the administration's most important initiatives. Steele is overseeing the administration's charter schools and faith-based proposals and its economic development policies. Ehrlich has also asked him to head up the "Thornton II Commission" - or, as the governor calls it, the "Steele I Commission" - to examine how schools teach.

`Real power'

During events, Ehrlich frequently steps aside to let Steele make the big announcement of the day. When they appeared at an environmental summit last month, it was Steele who announced the administration's top environmental priority of upgrading sewage and water treatment plants.

"When we try to talk with Governor Ehrlich about some issues, he will say, `Go speak to the lieutenant governor,'" said Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, an Eastern Shore Republican and the House minority whip. "What he is doing is sending us a message: `This lieutenant governor will have real power.'"

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel said Ehrlich is sending the same message to other powerbrokers and the public by frequently appearing with Steele at events.

"It gives Steele the benefit of having the gubernatorial authority behind him in whatever he does and the specific work he is doing for state government," Mandel said.

For his part, Ehrlich appears almost giddy at times over his relationship with Steele. In front of groups - particularly African-American audiences - Ehrlich often talks more about Steele than about the issue at hand.

This month, Ehrlich and Steele appeared at a reception for the leaders of the state's historically black colleges and universities. In a 10-minute speech, Ehrlich spent about one minute talking about education. The rest was devoted to his partnership with Steele.

Friendship

"The lieutenant governor and I actually like each other," Ehrlich told the gathering, a reference to the rocky relationships that marred previous gubernatorial tickets.

Their friendship - which included Steele showing up to support Ehrlich during the governor's fund-raising plunge into the Chesapeake Bay last month - is evidenced by their jovial behavior at events. The two often leave the press corps scratching their heads by exchanging indecipherable inside jokes that bring both men to laughter.

At another recent event, Ehrlich was asked how he would get his charter school proposal through the legislature. "I'm not going to divulge our secret strategy," Ehrlich said, turning to Steele. "You're the keeper of our secret strategies, right?"

"Right," Steele replied. "I ain't saying nothing."

Ehrlich says the key to their partnership is that they were friends well before their political alliance. (The two met in the mid-1990s when Ehrlich was a freshman congressman and Steele was a corporate lawyer.)

`A strange concept'

Still, Ehrlich acknowledges that he didn't want to have to pick a lieutenant governor candidate during the campaign.

"I did not want a running mate, it was a strange concept," Ehrlich said, noting that until then he had been on his own as a legislator. "I said, `I needed someone who knows me. I needed someone who could be part of the ticket without needing my time.'"

After selecting Steele, Ehrlich said their partnership instantly clicked. At their first campaign event together last summer, a reporter told them they sounded like they finished each other's sentences, Ehrlich said.

"We said, `Bingo. Bingo. This is going to work,'" Ehrlich said.

Rocky relationships

But - considering the track record of Maryland's top elected officials in the past - skeptics are aplenty in Annapolis.

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