Ehrlich plans to take his message to the people

With session over, governor will use `bully pulpit' to push agenda

General Assembly

April 13, 2005|By David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green | David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

With the 2005 legislative session behind him, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plans to escape the bruising arena of the State House and take his message on the road, where the down-home salesmanship of his tourism commercials and his family-guy presence in summer parades may help compensate for legislative frustrations.

"We will be spending the next nine months doing the same thing we did the last two off-seasons, using the bully pulpit to impact policy in the state," Ehrlich, who is burnishing his political image in advance of a widely expected bid for re-election in 2006, said yesterday at a news conference.

This year's off-season may have a different feel, however, as the General Assembly prepares to launch a probe into the Ehrlich administration's personnel practices. The inquiry threatens to damage the governor's image as a fresh leader bent on changing the state capital's old ways.

Even as Democratic lawmakers grumble that Ehrlich is disengaged from policy and shows little appetite for the work of governing, he and his aides seem to have honed a strategy of marketing him as a likable figure with the best interests of Marylanders at heart.

A year ago, the governor starred in commercials that showed him cleaning gutters and mowing lawns so families could spend time vacationing in Maryland - drawing the ire of lawmakers who said state money was misspent on the ads.

Other campaigns are being rolled out as well.

Ehrlich, whose administration proposed selling parkland to a politically connected contractor, now is appearing with his son, Drew, in a radio advertisement promoting Earth Day.

Administration officials also are considering featuring him in a reprise of the "Reach the Beach" campaign started under Gov. William Donald Schaefer that will try to ease Bay Bridge traffic by staggering the travel times of Ocean City vacationers.

"He is going to be using all the powers of incumbency," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "Dollars that are supposed to be promoting tourism, they are going to be promoting Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

"Here is an administration opposed to every single environmental law there is encouraging people to turn off their light switches, [in ads] featuring the governor."

At the same time, he likely will be blaming Democrats in the legislature, notably House Speaker Michael E. Busch, for the failure of key parts of the governor's legislative agenda, particularly a push to legalize slot machine gambling.

Busch and other legislative leaders stood toe-to-toe with Ehrlich for three months on slots, the budget and other issues. But Maryland's Assembly is parttime, and gets little attention after the session.

"It's hard because the one advantage the executive has is there's only one of him and he's able to hire an enormous amount of press flacks," said Del. Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County, the House majority leader. "It's an advantage we had when a Democrat was governor, and now he does."

Miller senses that the message that is coming will be bad for Democrats.

"What the governor is going to say is, `Not only are my views thwarted, but I need a farm team in Annapolis. I need people who are going to support my agenda, which is also your agenda. This is what I campaigned on, this is what the voters elected me on, and my views are thwarted.'"

Paul E. Shurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said the governor is going to be "very, very busy" in the next few months traveling around the state to promote his agenda - and perhaps to remind voters of ways in which the legislature has thwarted it.

"The governor has a lot on his to-do list - issues the legislature couldn't handle this year as well as launching new initiatives," Schurick said.

Last year, Ehrlich took a failed element of his agenda, the then-low-profile issue of medical malpractice insurance, and worked to get doctors, hospitals and the public on his side.

He succeeded in focusing attention on the issue but not in getting what he wanted. A special legislative session he called in December ended when legislators overrode his veto of the compromise they struck. He vowed to pursue the issue again in the session that just ended, but lawmakers say he did little to lobby for it, and his bill failed.

Ehrlich has suggested that he'll follow the same pattern of picking an issue from his agenda that legislators blocked and taking his case to the public. He said he will be working to let people know about his proposal to give tax breaks to military retirees, which was heavily amended in the House and blocked in the Senate.

"I'll be visiting a lot of VFWs [Veterans of Foreign Wars posts]. I'll be visiting a lot of American Legions," Ehrlich said.

The governor said he also will tour the state to promote his administration's environmental initiatives over the past three years and will employ other members of the administration to spread the word.

"We will continue to use the bully pulpit, the lieutenant governor and I, members of the Cabinet, the first lady," he said.

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