State House, White House and Ehrlich

The Political Game

Dilemma: As Maryland opposes the Bush administration on several fronts, the governor finds himself in a delicate position.

November 04, 2003|By David Nitkin and Michael Dresser | David Nitkin and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. has decided it's better to keep his mouth shut than to cross a Republican in the White House.

Last week, Maryland finally decided to join other Eastern states in a lawsuit against revised Environmental Protection Agency regulations that critics say will allow more polluted air to drift from Midwestern power plants.

While other states led by GOP governors, such as New York, immediately launched legal action in August, Ehrlich said he wanted time for his environmental shop to review the decision and make a reasoned response.

When that response came -- eight weeks later -- it was Democratic Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. who made the announcement. Ehrlich's office did not send out a news release.

Asked whether Ehrlich was reluctant to sign on, Curran hesitated for a moment, then said "no."

Still, Ehrlich aides said there was much internal debate over whether the state's first Republican governor in a generation should join legal action against a Republican president who presumably will be in a difficult re-election fight next year.

The governor picked a course that allows the state to fight for cleaner air without him aggressively attacking Bush's policies.

A similar pattern is unfolding over Bush's nomination of Virginian Claude A. Allen for a judgeship on the U.S Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Maryland Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski have vowed to fight the nomination, saying the seat should go to a Marylander, based on the proportion of the 4th Circuit made up of Marylanders.

Ehrlich, to date, has not taken a position.

But what the governor has told crowds during recent speeches is that he and first lady Kendel Ehrlich thoroughly enjoyed their visit to Camp David as Bush's guests this year. He's also said that the White House's political arm has told him they will ask him to play a role in Bush's re-election campaign.

It looks like the governor is trying to minimize damage to that relationship, even when his duties as governor conflict with the desires of the White House.

Selective fax grants radio station a scoop

Ehrlich telephoned Michael Austin at 9:30 a.m. Friday, telling the 55-year-old former inmate he was receiving a pardon after spending 27 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

Two hours before that, the governor's press office sent a fax to talk show host Larry Young, giving the former state senator and WOLB personality a nearly daylong exclusive on the news.

While Young's producer received notification from the governor's office at 7:30 a.m., an official announcement was not provided to other news media outlets until 4 p.m.

"This is the one time that had ever happened," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich. "The Michael Austin situation was very important to Larry Young and his listeners."

Young's show reaches an almost exclusively black audience in Baltimore, on a station owned by Radio One, led by media mogul Catherine L. Hughes. By handing Young a scoop, the governor's office took another step toward cementing his credibility in a community where Republicans don't often perform well. The pardoning of Austin, who is black, also could help.

"For him to step up to do this, I can't see anything but good vibes coming his way," said Young in an interview yesterday.

Young said he was frustrated that former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, did not grant Austin a pardon.

"All I can say is that certainly we were very proud of the fact we were able to break it," said Young, who also broadcast live from the State House, with Ehrlich as a guest, several weeks ago.

But if Ehrlich's office wanted to give an exclusive to Young -- ousted from the state Senate on ethics charges but acquitted of criminal charges related to misusing his office -- why couldn't it have informed other news media outlets a short time later?

Fawell said he wanted to wait until after a 3:30 public appearance by Ehrlich, to see whether the governor said anything that would necessitate altering his prepared statement.

Well, at least they got the middle initial right

When you're building in one of the most visible spots in Annapolis, attention to detail is crucial.

That's the lesson learned by the Maryland Fire-Rescue Services Foundation, which is erecting a monument to fallen firefighters on a vacant, grassy half-acre triangle of land passed by every motorist entering the state government campus from U.S. 50 along Rowe Boulevard.

Last week, three large signs announcing the memorial were put up. As on any publicly supported public works project, the signs named state officials on duty: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, and Lt. Gov. Robert S. Steele.

Only problem is, the lieutenant governor's first name is Michael.

"You know what? The state did that," said J. Donald Mooney, past chief of the Lansdowne volunteer department and president of the state foundation, when told of the glitch by a reporter yesterday. The signs were made at a reduced cost by State Use Industries, a program that puts prisoners to work making furniture, license plates, luggage and other goods.

Asked whether he knew a Robert Steele, the lieutenant governor said: "We're going to find out who that brother is and reassign him."

Sun staff writer Dennis O'Brien contributed to this column.

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