Ehrlich hits campaign trail early with bus tour around Maryland

Trip designed to promote successes, rally supporters

April 26, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

It may be more than three years until the next gubernatorial election, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. staged a campaign-style bus tour yesterday to promote his administration's accomplishments and rally his supporters.

Ehrlich launched the tour with a fiery speech from the steps of the State House, where he told about 100 of the Republican faithful -- many of whom waved signs reading "We Love Bob" and "Thank You for Not Raising My Taxes" -- that he has had a successful first 100 days in office.

"We are celebrating the end of the status quo in Maryland," Ehrlich told the crowd before he and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele boarded separate motor coaches to tour the state.

While marking his successes, Ehrlich largely steered clear of mentioning his administration's biggest setback -- the defeat of his proposal to bring slot machines to Maryland racetracks.

And although he railed against Democrats for trying to raise taxes, the governor never brought up his proposal to raise the state property tax rate. Democrats took note of that omission.

"I think the vast majority of legislators have to be asking themselves what amnesia has set in here," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.

It is clear, however, that Ehrlich believes he has the upper hand when it comes to the tax debate, and yesterday he reiterated his pledge to veto a package of higher business taxes approved by the General Assembly.

Ehrlich also took credit for stopping attempts by some legislators to raise "billions" of dollars in new taxes.

"We just said no," Ehrlich told the crowd, which included a large number of college students. "And you know what, this town is finally getting it. We meant no."

Though most State House observers say Ehrlich's administration has had a lackluster start, the governor ticked off a list of accomplishments, including charter schools, a proposal to reform the state's juvenile justice system and persuading U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio to prosecute more gun cases on the federal level. Several of those initiatives, however, were drastically scaled back by the legislature.

Yesterday's bus tour yesterday had all the trappings and rhetoric of the first event of the 2006 campaign.

"The Ehrlich/Steele administration is a different kind of administration with a different philosophy and different goals than most Annapolis observers and a few newspapers are used to," Steele said, continuing the administration's contention that The Sun and The Washington Post treat it unfairly.

"But they will adjust," he said. "They will have to because we are not going away for some time."

The governor's bus took him to stops in Baltimore and to a rally in Arbutus, his boyhood home. Ehrlich was scheduled to end his day at a fund-raiser last night in Frederick for Sen. Alex X. Mooney, one of the state Senate's most conservative members. Steele's bus took him to the Eastern Shore.

John Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said the bus tour is the first of many events designed to put Ehrlich before Maryland voters.

But Maryland Democrats warn that Ehrlich's constant campaigning could backfire with legislators who will be voting on the rest of his agenda.

"The audience he is addressing doesn't vote for three more years," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat. "The audience he should be addressing is going to vote 3,000 times a year for three more years."

Franchot said Ehrlich is "poisoning the well" by not accepting responsibility that it was he -- not Democratic legislators -- who first proposed $165 million in additional state property taxes.

"What you saw today is a step into nowhere, because where does it lead?" Franchot said. "It leads to very bad long-term dynamics with the legislature."

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