Governor Ehrlich's curious New York adventure

September 05, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

NEW YORK - These dwindling summer days are happy ones for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He's got a deeper-than-expected budget surplus, an improved employment picture and a higher-profile Maryland GOP thanks to his win in 2002 and to Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's speech at last week's party convention here.

But once again, his tendency to unleash startling observations is offering a deeper look at how he thinks. It's an odd habit for someone whose life is politics and who prides himself on his understanding of that art.

On the first day of the convention, he seemed to come from nowhere to accuse the Democratic Party of racist tactics. He said they are telling black Americans they will be traitors to their race if they're not liberal Democrats. Mr. Steele has been accused of Uncle Tomism for being a Republican, he said.

Pressed to say just what it was that seemed racist in the Democratic message, he offered no specifics. He said very harsh language had come out of a recent NAACP convention, but again he offered no specifics.

Others said Mr. Ehrlich was angry because the national press had demanded repeatedly to know how a black man could be a Republican. Less charitably, others said the governor was suffering a bit of "speaker envy" because he had no public role in the convention.

Isiah Leggett, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party and once thought to be a contender for lieutenant governor, quickly accused Mr. Ehrlich of trying to have it both ways. It's fine, Mr. Leggett said, for Republicans to use Mr. Steele if you can make him more than a symbol. "But don't turn and blame the Democrats because questions are raised about it," he said.

If Mr. Ehrlich was suggesting Democrats can control black behavior, he said, "that's one of the most racist statements I ever heard: that we lack logic, we lack reason and rationale as to why we vote the way we vote.

"I would never say that anyone should loyally follow the Democratic Party, just out of general loyalty. We must get out and earn that vote, each and every election."

For a man who seems to have politics on his mind most of the time, this dramatic stumble would have been remarkable - if it were not, apparently, part of a pattern. Mr. Ehrlich has been given to intemperate remarks in the past. For example, he called multiculturalism, as taught on college campuses, "crap."

Indulging himself in what seem intemperate comments intrudes on all the good news. And there was even more of it: He raised $250,000 in campaign cash while in Gotham. It's early even by modern campaign standards, but people are already talking about his effort to pre-empt the fund-raising possibilities of any challenger in 2006.

In his talk to the Maryland GOP's convention delegates, he said the cornerstones of political power are grass-roots support, strong governmental policies and cash, not necessarily in that order. Since Mr. Steele made history by becoming the first black person elected statewide in Maryland, the two men have sought to consolidate and expand the political dividends of that win by courting black voters, overwhelmingly Democratic since the New Deal.

Mr. Ehrlich is right, certainly, to oppose racial stereotypes. His support for Mr. Steele is admirable. And his willingness to put the issue in front of people could have merit if the initiative seemed more fully thought out. But by ignoring policy differences between Republicans and Democrats, the governor was begging the question. It's just illogical to suggest that because blacks vote Democratic in large numbers they've been brainwashed. Better to propose policies that win converts.

And perhaps he will. In his speech Tuesday evening, Mr. Steele noted that the era of lunch-counter sit-ins is over; the question now is whether black Americans can own a lunch counter. During their campaign for the State House, the Ehrlich-Steele team said it would move decisively to expand opportunities for black businesses hoping for state contracts. Which raises this question: How many more black-owned lunch counters are there in Maryland?

Self-help and industry are essential, of course. But Democrats have argued that government assistance is required because of a period of U.S. history in which racist practice was public policy. Black Americans have responded positively at the polls.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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