Guiding Principle

The governor's willing to take his lumps now because he's confident his leadership skills will win out in the long run.

March 15, 2003|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

The debate in the Maryland Senate is as electric as it's ever been. Television cameras are three deep. There are accusations of vote trading and partisanship in the Democrat-controlled chamber, complaints about a governor who could muck up the Chesapeake Bay with his choice of Lynn Buhl as environmental secretary, even fears of bigger cancer bills if she is confirmed.

The Republican governor knows he is about to lose - big time - as he speaks in a far-away conference room about leadership.

Vince Lombardi did not win every game, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says over the crinkle of bag lunches. Leadership is about standing on principle and taking your lumps. No matter what, he tells a group organized by the Greater Baltimore Committee, you always want to come up with the best idea. You shouldn't run if you don't have new ideas.

These business types aren't shy. They ask the governor: Is there anything you would have done differently in your first months?

They refer, presumably, to what the newspapers call Ehrlich's rocky start: a poorly conceived slots bill, his personal attack on the popular Speaker of the House, the initial neglect of a key Baltimore rail line in his list of federal transportation projects and, now, the battle in the Senate, controlled by a Democrat who has been his friend on slots.

"No," the governor says, "we've been perfect."

He pauses while they laugh.

"Of course, you make mistakes. You are only human." Then he reminds them what happened during his campaign, the strategy he had for six months that led to his win, and the incredulous reaction from the press.

"Are you surprised?" reporters asked. Well, no.

And he recounts his successes as governor: A seamless transition. All but one cabinet member approved by the Senate. Appointments that made people happy. No battles on the Board of Public Works.

"I think we've had a pretty smooth transition," he says, "and we're going to get our slots."

"Today," he says, "is a hiccup."

A big ego is essential to being a leader. So says Bob Ehrlich. He's been talking about leadership all week, the week he becomes the first governor in modern history to see a cabinet member rejected.

Ego. It's what gives you the confidence to make your case. To take your lumps. But it can't be more important than principle. It has to be No. 2. Or No. 3. Otherwise, you are in danger of placating groups that contradict the way you feel. You become a politician, not a leader, he says.

Take Buhl. He was willing to deal but only so far. The Black Caucus asked for an African-American deputy. Fine, he said. One lawmaker asked him to get rid of a deputy that environmentalists didn't like. Fine. Another recommended somebody for a seat on a commission. Fine.

But one thing is sacred, Ehrlich tells the business group: The governor gets to choose his cabinet. The only thing he'd heard against Buhl was that she was from Michigan. He wasn't going to let a senator tell him how to run his department. (The senator proposed to delay the vote on Buhl until January.) "`That's the way it's been,' the senator says. I said, `That's not the way it is now.'"

The business people ask about the budget numbers Ehrlich's office will release later this day. The hole in this year's budget has jumped to at least $450 million.

To Ehrlich, the new numbers are another hiccup.

Bad, yes, but they make his plan to bring in new revenue from slots look better.

"Clearly taxes are not the answer," he says. "That's why I was elected."

After the vote against Buhl, Ehrlich sympathizes with his nominee by cell phone as he walks down the street to his next appointment.

Ehrlich's aides are also on their cell phones. The press has staked out Chick & Ruth's Delly, where a new sandwich named for the governor is to be unveiled. The governor appears not to notice the throng of 30 reporters, spilling into the street in front of the deli. Ehrlich walks calmly down the cobblestones toward the cabal. Under the light of television cameras, he charges the mob, staying 20 minutes to answer questions.

As much as Ehrlich rags on the press, which is five times this day, he loves taking reporters on. Curious drivers clog traffic while he talks. Nobody gets into Chick & Ruth's today.

Ehrlich is opening the gate into the governor's mansion later when he spots E.J. Pipkin, a freshman Republican from the Eastern Shore. "Senator," he calls before he runs over, grabs the man's hand and thanks him heartily for his vote.

Not until Ehrlich arrives to speak to a roomful of families toting strollers and diaper bags does he reveal his disappointment over the vote. He pats little heads. He talks about his son, Drew. Mothers with babies run to pose with him for pictures. He obliges. They are here to lobby against cuts to daycare centers, and he urges them on. Anything he can do for families.

"We need some love today," he yells to the crowd, using his trademark plural pronoun, "and we know where to come to get it!"

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