Ehrlich's call for more civility, respect assumes short collective memory

February 01, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SINCE POLITICS is the art of behaving as if no one has any memory, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. seems to have imagined himself speaking to an audience of amnesiacs the other day. In his annual State of the State address, the governor of Maryland presumed to lecture his General Assembly on the fine points of civility and respect.

As witnessed by those in the State House and those agog in front of our television sets, the governor used the word "respect" 13 times in all, causing astute observers to note this was a record untouched apart from some previously unknown mating of Aretha Franklin and Rodney Dangerfield.

The repeated reference came in a sort of ad-libbed preamble to the main body of his formal address, which resonated across the state with all the majesty of a chamber of commerce luncheon chat.

But the "respect" part of the speech was something else. It went on for a full six minutes. So you knew, against all logic and all previous history, that Ehrlich wasn't kidding around. He talked about legislators who try to "embarrass the governor." He complained about "not playing the Capitol Hill game of demagoguing on personal ethics," and of "Capitol Hill assassin politics."

These are phrases that combine the best of hypocrisy and chutzpah, and thus strike such a discordant note. They come from the very governor who armed himself with the best of Capitol Hill attack politics en route to election two years ago, and then planted them into Annapolis himself, and now wishes everyone to suffer instant amnesia.

Or else he assumed he was talking to people who haven't been paying much attention.

This is the man who ran for office loudly declaring a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis while his own hand-picked U.S. attorney, the since forced-from-office Thomas DiBiagio , conveniently opened a sweeping investigation around Kathleen Kennedy Townsend that finally resulted in a total of one indictment -- which was famously dropped -- against Stephen Amos, a career bureaucrat with a previously unblemished reputation. All it did was nearly destroy poor Amos' life.

And this governor wants to bring up "assassin politics?"

This is the governor who accused House Speaker Michael Busch of "playing the race card" because Busch dared to disagree with him on slot machine legislation. And characterized Democratic Party appeals to black voters as "racist."

And he wants to talk about "demagoguing?"

He's the governor who went on talk radio to call multiculturalism, which is the very bedrock of the American melting pot, "crap" and "bunk."

And he wants to talk about "respect"?

He's the man whose party took out slash-and-burn radio ads intended to intimidate three Anne Arundel County Democrats on the eve of the recent vote on medical malpractice insurance. And, when criticized for them, hid behind John M. Kane, chairman of Maryland's Republican Party, who publicly declared that Ehrlich had nothing at all to do with the ads, since the governor and his party are certainly not the same thing.

Right.

For his State of the State address last week, Ehrlich's office set aside gallery seats for top elected officials from around the state -- but not for Mayor Martin O'Malley or Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan. Was it just coincidental that these two want to challenge Ehrlich for governor next year?

Or was this Ehrlich's idea of "respect"?

A few days before his "respect" remarks, the governor submitted a proposed state budget that was immediately noteworthy for the money it would not spread around. Baltimore, and all counties, would get average spending increases of 10.1 percent under the governor's plan.

But Calvert County, home to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who helped lead the override of Ehrlich's recent medical malpractice veto, would get only a 3 percent increase. That's the lowest percentage increase in the state, said Miller.

And Anne Arundel County, home to Speaker Busch, who has fought with Ehrlich over slots for two years, gets only a 5.3 percent increase. That's the second-lowest increase in the state.

"Retribution," Busch called it last week.

Then, a few days later, came Governor Ehrlich's big lecture on "respect." He must have imagined all his listeners had amnesia.

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