After legislative setbacks, Ehrlich takes case to public

Slots and funding defeats revive campaign approach

April 06, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

With his legislative machine sputtering, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will try to boost his administration by turning to the well-honed political operation that carried him into office.

Shortly after the General Assembly session ends this week, Ehrlich will launch a tour of the state, reconnecting with the rural and suburban voters responsible for his historic win last November.

It's already evident what his message will be: Even though Democrats in the House of Delegates rejected slots, I held firm against higher taxes. We'll all have to live with a smaller, leaner government, so be prepared.

"He communicates best when he communicates directly with the public," said Paul E. Schurick, a top aide to the governor. "He's going to do what he enjoys the most."

It's not surprising that the governor would want to spend time away from the State House. For the past 90 days, Ehrlich has been communicating mainly with a Democratic-controlled legislature, with unimpressive results.

Maryland's first experience with divided government in more than three decades has gotten off to a shaky start. Barring unexpected last-minute breakthroughs, Ehrlich struck out with a legislative agenda that included tougher prosecution of gun crimes, funding social services through "faith-based" initiatives and reforming juvenile justice.

His pick for secretary of the environment was derailed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. His gambling plan was flattened by House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Critics say that his lack of experience is largely to blame. Since January, Democrats in the Assembly have repeatedly called on Ehrlich to stop campaigning and start governing.

But it now looks as if the governor will do just the opposite. As Democratic lawmakers leave Annapolis, Ehrlich will appeal directly to voters through talk radio, personal appearances and meetings with the editorial boards of local newspapers.

"You should never stop campaigning," said Carol Arscott, an independent pollster and a former Howard County Republican chairwoman. "I think he can probably walk and chew gum at the same time. He's a talented guy."

Signals that the governor was shifting his strategy appeared last week, when in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of his slots bill, he made several long appearances on radio talk shows, using language that could have been lifted from last year's campaign.

"The old way is simply not going to be followed," Ehrlich said during a recent interview. "If the lieutenant governor [Kathleen Kennedy Townsend] had won, the only debate would have been which taxes to raise, and how much. We didn't think it was going to be easy, changing four decades of political culture."

The state GOP party apparatus also appears to have kicked into gear.

Last week, Ehrlich aides commissioned a poll of 400 voters that is expected to be paid for by the party. Sixty-one percent said they approve of the job Ehrlich is doing; 23 percent are opposed. Fifty-nine percent said slots at racetracks are preferable for closing the state's budget deficit; 21 percent said taxes should be raised.

"That poll has reaffirmed the Ehrlich agenda, which is one of change in government and lower taxes," Schurick said.

Already last week, a sign appeared in the Republican Party headquarters in Annapolis: "Blame Speaker Busch for cutting education," it read.

"They're very good at campaigning and out with the public, but it still comes down to governing. They have to become a little more in tune with what the role of the governor is, and how he makes the tough decisions," Busch said.

"I realize I'm in the eye of the storm," the speaker continued. "We're going to serve three years here together, and I don't know what purpose that serves for them to go out and attack me or any other member that they are trying to work with."

The governor told a group of reporters he would travel by bus to all regions of the state starting this week, but aides later said the schedule and mode of transportation had not been set.

David Paulson, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said he expects the governor's message to focus on his party, adding that he believes Ehrlich is "struggling to maintain his political viability."

"He gets to lay out a message unchecked by reality. He's going to try to point the blame at Democrats for any budget cuts that take place," Paulson said.

"He will stand up and shout that `I may not have gotten everything I wanted, but I stood by my principles,'" Paulson said. "It's an indication that he isn't capable of handling the details and the issues that supposedly stem from his principles. It's empty rhetoric."

Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, questioned the timing of Ehrlich's outreach.

"If he believes a well of public support exists, why wouldn't he tap into that well when he needed it during the session, instead of after?" Schaller asked. "It doesn't make sense."

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