Ehrlich has little to show at session end

General Assembly

April 12, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

BY NOW, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should be pacing his mansion and spraying his throat. The governor of Maryland needs his vocal cords ready for all those friendly talk-show appearances he'll be making now as he attempts to rewrite the pitiful history of the last 90 days. Somebody send this guy a lozenge. While you're at it, send him an introduction to his own General Assembly.

Maybe if he'd been talking to legislators more instead of posing for the TV cameras and buddying up to the radio boys, he'd have accomplished something swell this year. It's an old American tradition: The governor quietly invites grown-ups into his office, and each side gives a little and takes a little, and in this manner we all get something besides empty posturing.

Yesterday, the 2005 legislative session ended with Ehrlich newly returned from his TV trip to Chesapeake Beach bingo machines to hustle slots, and his TV appearance with adorable schoolchildren, and his TV appearance with military veterans, and his regular trips to radio stations where the talk-show hosts have leased space in the governor's back pocket.

But as the session stumbled to its midnight close yesterday, the governor had rolled snake eyes for the third straight winter on slots, his legislative centerpiece, and would have been hard-pressed to point out any other signs of major success. Every governor wants to declare victory and go home after the long winter session. But how will this guy do it?

"I don't know," House Speaker Michael Busch said yesterday. "He makes up his own set of facts all the time."

"He's banking on people not caring," said Jann K. Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, as she looked around the State House. "He'll go on the radio and blame everybody else. And if you're not paying attention, you don't know any differently."

Jackson remembers a couple of years ago, when Ehrlich ran for office promising to reform juvenile justice. Promises, promises. Then she heard Ehrlich call this the year of the child. Jackson sneers at the phrase. For all the empty promises, she has seen the recent reports of big juvenile-services money troubles and continuing accounts of child abuse at detention centers. And she's seen the investigation, by this newspaper, detailing troubles in foster homes -- often because there's an absence of strong state oversight.

"Juvenile services," said Baltimore County Del. Bobby Zirkin, "is in absolute free-fall. They're broke and already in the hole for next year. Group homes are a complete disaster. And this administration hasn't come up with a single creative idea. Not one."

Year of the child, indeed.

"Instead of working with the people he needs to work with -- his own legislators -- the governor goes on the radio and blasts these people," said Howard County Del. Shane Pendergrass. "It's about good faith. He says, `The problem's with the legislature, I'm the good guy, they're the bad guys.' If your agenda is blasting the other party, then he accomplished something. If it's doing the state's work, then he's been an abysmal failure."

This was the governor who opened the session calling for mutual "respect" and bad-mouthed his opponents on the radio. He's the governor who scrambled to avoid connection to the scurrilous rumors spread by one of his aides about Martin O'Malley. He's the governor now facing hearings about hirings and firings based on political leanings. He's the governor who made slots the centerpiece of everything, and tried to run the table.

"He's like somebody in need of intervention," said Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot. "He's all by himself. He has nothing to show in this session, nothing but lint in his pockets. He needs competent outside people to come in and tell him what to do.

"Did you see him down there?" Franchot said. He meant Ehrlich's Chesapeake Beach bingo appearance, and he made a gesture like a man pulling a handle on a slot machine. "He's there like it's 4 in the morning, and he's trying desperately to get his money back. But you reap what you sow. This is a governor who's refused to put in the hard work for a compromise. He'd rather go on radio and TV. But he's hijacked the legislature by linking 98 percent of everything he's proposed to slot machines."

Republicans don't buy this, though they're not exactly singing hosannas over the session. Eastern Shore Del. Michael Smigiel said his constituents blame House Speaker Busch for the failure of slots. "They say, `Tell me who's running against him, and we'll back him,'" said Smigiel.

On the House floor yesterday, Republican whip Anthony J. O'Donnell, from Southern Maryland, said Democrats are telling one another, "We can't let [Ehrlich] look good. If he looks good, he'll get re-elected next year."

But, as the final hours ticked away yesterday, Baltimore Del. Curtis Anderson wearily declared, "It's the same old story. Ehrlich will call up the radio stations and blame the Democrats. He won't mention his own part. Like medical malpractice. How do you call that a priority and not even testify for it? We had an empty seat there. If that had been William Donald Schaefer and he wanted something, you can bet he'd be in the room, looking you in the eye. This guy just doesn't show up that much. But he's on the radio, isn't he?"

So send your governor a throat lozenge. Or an introduction to his own General Assembly.

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