After 100 days, Ehrlich bruised but not beaten

General Assembly session was rough, but governor retains appeal with voters

April 24, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Sucking on a Marlboro from the front steps of his Arbutus rowhouse, Dick Moore joined the ranks of those pondering the recent performance of his neighborhood's most famous son.

Like most of those who live around him, Moore happily cast a vote in November for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the personable congressman who grew up two blocks away in the modest home where his parents still live. He cheered when Ehrlich became the first Republican governor elected by a majority since 1954.

And now, as pundits and the state's overwhelmingly Democratic political establishment dissect Ehrlich's halting start - labeling him everything from a vacillator to a lightweight - Moore, 69, says he still likes what he sees.

"I think he's doing good," said the retired Baltimore police officer on a recent morning. "I figured he'd give it a good shot. ... And I think he's still trying."

The Ehrlich administration hits its 100-day mark today, reaching what has become the traditional, if arbitrary, deadline for tallying early successes and failures.

Because most of that period overlapped with the 90-day General Assembly session, many of Ehrlich's missteps have been chronicled in detail.

The slot-machine gambling proposal that was a touchstone of his campaign and a crucial component of his long-term budget-balancing plan was rejected by the House of Delegates. The Maryland Senate turned down his nominee for secretary of environment.

He gave a high-paying job to a supporter tainted by personal scandal, former Democratic state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, and quickly rescinded it.

"I think the governor has had a very rocky start," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

"The governor found himself suspended in midair between the Democratic legislature he had to deal with and the Republican base he had to hold on to, and he just couldn't make the stretch," Crenson said. "I think he's in for some rough sledding for the next three years, unless he dramatically changes his approach to the legislature."

Ehrlich tried early on to reach out to Democrats, but as his agenda crumbled, those bipartisan overtures dissipated. He now appears handcuffed by his own party's right wing, Crenson said. Exhibit One: After a backlash from Republicans, the governor now says he will veto a corporate tax and fee bill that contains elements he proposed only weeks ago.

Popular appeal

But on the streets of Arbutus, and elsewhere in suburban Maryland, Ehrlich has maintained solid support, polls and interviews show. His staunchest supporters seem to care little that the governor got shown up by Democratic legislative leaders.

"Being a Republican in a Democratic area, they didn't want him to do well," said Raymond Lawson, 81, a retired machinist out for his brisk daily walk near Ehrlich's boyhood home.

Dorothy Irvin, 68, a retired secretary shopping at the Dollar Store in Arbutus, said Ehrlich "walked into a mess."

"The boy didn't stand a chance," she said. "He's trying to get us out of debt, and nobody wants to help. I wish him all the luck in the world."

Sentiments like those reflect the gap between the small band of politicians, lobbyists and other wonks who carefully follow state affairs, and the feelings of a majority of Marylanders who pay only fleeting attention to their governments.

"People are responding to what they see and what they feel. They think he's a good guy. They think he's one of them," said Donald E. Murphy, a former state delegate and chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Party. "More people live in the Arbutuses of the world than the Ruxtons of the world. Average guy makes good. That was a good story. It's still a good story."

It is a distinction that Ehrlich embraces. Since the session's end, he is speaking directly to the voters that elected him, using talk radio and other venues. He has decided that Maryland's major newspapers are out to get him, and he is trying to marginalize them.

Likely to run again

"This is a right-of-center administration dealing with a left-of-center General Assembly," Ehrlich said yesterday during a noon speech in Baltimore to Maryland Business for Responsive Government that was the launch of a series of 100-day events. "To the extent we get things done, it's never going to be easy"

Ehrlich conceded that he would often enter Government House at night looking for companionship from wife Kendel "after getting my butt kicked during the day." But he sounded resolute in announcing that he would not be beaten back, adding that "we are most likely going to run again" in 2006.

"I'm tough. We're tough," he said. "There's some people not happy that we are celebrating some of our successes, because they want us to fail. ... This administration will not fail."

`Dazzling ineptitude'

But try as he might, Ehrlich cannot escape criticism that he and his staff have been unimpressive in their early going.

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