Ehrlich quits radio show as host changes

The Political Game

Change: The governor gives up his regular free air time when WBAL removes Ron Smith as the moderator.

September 14, 2004|By David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green | David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. will forgo hours of free airtime on one of Baltimore's most popular radio stations rather than participate in a show with a new host.

Since his election in 2002, Ehrlich has spent an hour every other week on Stateline with the Governor, moderated by WBAL radio personality Ron Smith.

But after The Sun reported last month that Ehrlich hired Smith's wife, June, to a new $79,771-a-year public-relations job in the state Department of Juvenile Services, station management decided that Smith should no longer host the show.

"After learning that Ron's wife had accepted this position, Ron gave us assurances that there was no quid pro quo," WBAL station manager and vice president Jeff Beauchamp said in an interview yesterday. "But we believe that even the appearance of a quid pro quo - even though we don't believe there is any - is something we should avoid."

WBAL executives said they offered the governor a slight format change, with news director Mark Miller posing questions and fielding telephone calls. After all, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's show on the station is produced by the news department, not by an on-air personality such as Smith, who is paid to express opinions.

"There is a distinction between being a news person on WBAL and being a talk-show host. Reporters deal in facts; talk-show hosts deal in opinion," Beauchamp said. "There has been some confusion that Ron can't be objective. Well, talk shows aren't objective. I'm a little disturbed that this distinction hasn't been made, and the lines have been blurred. We feel we have a very credible news department, and we don't want to confuse those two points."

But Ehrlich has decided not to participate in a show if Smith is not involved.

"It's surprisingly simple," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich. "The governor signed up to do the Ron Smith show. That was the agreement; it's no longer the case."

The governor's decision is also wrapped in politics. The state Democratic Party pounced on June Smith's hire.

"Governor Ehrlich might as well drop off Mrs. Smith's paycheck to the studio every other week," Democrats said in a scathing news release last month. "Put simply, Marylanders deserve a public interest radio show where it does not appear the host is paid by the elected official."

So if Ehrlich acceded to the change, it could have been interpreted as caving in to Democrats - an unacceptable interpretation in the eyes of the administration.

Fawell said that Ehrlich was not fearful of facing tougher questions from a news-department host, compared with the generally favorable comments from Smith.

"This governor can hold his own in any environment, hostile or not," Fawell said. "He knows the issues inside out - he is direct and honest and blunt - that's why listenership was so high."

Governor's latest role: pitchman for the MVA

In other media news, Ehrlich is stepping up his role as the main pitchman for Maryland.

Fresh off his radio and television spots for Maryland tourism efforts, the governor is launching a campaign to promote a new Motor Vehicle Administration service for mail renewal of driver's licenses.

A $271,000 radio and television buy began yesterday and will run for four weeks, said Buel Young, an MVA spokesman.

In the television version, which will appear on cable stations for two weeks this month, Ehrlich plays savior to family members sending off their father to the evil MVA office.

With gloomy music and a crack of thunder in the background, poor Jerry - gut hanging over belt and face pocked with acne scars - gets a pat on the back from his wife and heads for the front door.

But guess who's waiting on the other side? It's Maryland's ever-helpful governor, with a great new idea. Here's the script:

Ehrlich (energetic and earnest): "Hey, Jerry. What's going on?"

Jerry (morose): "Well, hi, Governor Ehrlich. I have to go stand in line at the MVA to renew my driver's license."

Ehrlich: "Not any more. Things have changed. Renewing your Maryland driver's license just got a whole lot easier. Now, you can do it by mail."

Jerry (smiling and exuberant): "Thanks, governor. That's great."

The spot ends with Ehrlich peeking through the door before closing it: "You know, I really love my job," he says.

Surely, voters will sense that enthusiasm and remember it when they vote in 2006. After all, how can you kick a guy out of a job he loves so much?

Schaefer suggests Ehrlich play hardball on slots vote

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, whose most frequent critique of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is that he's too nice, offered a suggestion at the Board of Public Works meeting last week for how the governor could persuade reluctant House Democrats to legalize slot machines.

Forget this business of negotiating with House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Schaefer said. Try instead the state-politics equivalent of a horse head in the bed: Cut off school construction funds in the districts of delegates who resist.

"You know, there's a game: If you don't play ball with me, I don't play ball with you," Schaefer said. "You know why you don't do it? You're a nice guy.

"Nancy would have a fit if you said it to them," Schaefer continued, referring to state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "Hold up school construction. Oooh. Oooooh. Ooooooooh," he said, relishing the deviousness of his plan.

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