Ehrlich advised to `move on' after loss

Nominee's defeat shows split between governor, Democratic legislature

March 17, 2003|By David Nitkin and Tim Craig | David Nitkin and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Just hours after the worst loss of his young administration, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stood before a room of 300 up-and-coming professionals and delivered a smooth speech on the qualities of leadership.

If he was nursing wounds from an unprecedented setback earlier in the day - his nominee for environmental secretary was defeated in the Senate by a 26-21 vote - he didn't show it.

"After the day he had, I think we all would have understood if he didn't show up," said Sean M. Looney, a Verizon lobbyist who attended the Leadership Maryland event Tuesday. "Not only did he show up, he gave a wonderful 25-minute speech on commitment and duty. He wowed the crowd."

The next day, Ehrlich huddled with the chief architect of his defeat, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, for what both said was a productive discussion on how to patch a widening budget shortfall.

At least outwardly, Ehrlich seems to have absorbed one of the key lessons of survival in the General Assembly: Don't dwell on losses.

"One must remember the process must always move forward in Annapolis," said former Sen. Martin G. Madden, a top adviser to the governor on political issues. "It's a 90-day session. Tough votes are taken, and once they're taken, you move on. The person whose vote you needed yesterday and wasn't with you may be the crucial vote you need tomorrow."

But even as Ehrlich assumes a cheerful pose and plows forward with the business of governing, many State House observers say the vote over Lynn Y. Buhl may not be easy to leave behind.

The rejection of a Cabinet secretary for the first time in state history illustrates the perils of divided government for the state's first Republican governor in more than three decades. It showed that Miller - the wily and resilient 17-year Senate president - can usually get what he wants in a chamber that has 33 Democrats and 14 Republicans.

And while Ehrlich may hope to advance his agenda through a coalition of GOP lawmakers and conservative Democrats, those alliances may not be so easy to build or keep.

"What he needs to learn is from time to time there are going to be decisions made in the legislature that has nothing to do with the debate," said Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., the minority leader in the House of Delegates, which tilts toward the Democrats by a similar margin. "They are purely raw, political decisions."

Ehrlich `cooperative'

Getting past the Buhl decision "is going to be hard," predicted Sen. Robert H. Kittleman.

"Ehrlich has reached out and gone overboard in terms of being cooperative," said the Howard County Republican. "He made a lot of appointments that Republicans really hated. Miller got a lot of appointments he wanted. Seventy-five percent of the Senate are Democrats. It's very tough to govern."

To be sure, Ehrlich is learning how to use the tools at his disposal. Despite the current fiscal crisis, Maryland's governors wield vast authority over the budget, power that previous executives have used to win votes by approving projects or programs.

"I think there's no doubt that you see Senator Miller sending a shot across the bow that he is a player that must be reckoned with," said John N. Bambacus, director of the Public Affairs Institute at Frostburg State University and a former GOP state senator. "It's unfortunate that Ms. Buhl had to be caught in the crossfire of the executive and legislative branch."

Bambacus said that while Miller won the skirmish, Ehrlich could triumph in the end.

"There will be a mutual understanding that power is shared in Annapolis, and you choose your battles carefully," Bambacus said. "The office of the governor will ultimately win. Senators are judged by bringing home the bacon, and the governor has everything to do with bringing the bacon home."

Governor's lessons

Asked if he took lessons from last week's vote, Ehrlich was literal if not reflective.

"I learned that when the president wants to switch some votes from the committee to the floor, he can do it," Ehrlich said.

But he said that has no regrets over rejecting a compromise offered by Democrats that would have allowed Buhl to serve as acting secretary for a year and face confirmation in January, a kind of probationary period. The concept that governors should choose their own Cabinet secretaries, Ehrlich said, was worth fighting for.

"If you lose on principle, if you lose doing the right thing, you can't feel bad," the governor said. "You live with it. It's part of what you all knew would happen down here."

Miller said he hopes Ehrlich grows from his mistakes.

"Governing is a very difficult process," Miller said. "President Clinton in his first year made a number of mistakes. So did Jimmy Carter."

During the Buhl lobbying effort, "they miscalculated. They didn't know the terrain," Miller said. "If the governor gets readjusted to life in Annapolis, things will go more smoothly."

Some worry that the vote could herald four years of stalemates among competing governmental branches.

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