Abrams trips up Ehrlich's pledge to Schaefer

Laying contingency plan for party, Republican to run for comptroller


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s respect for William Donald Schaefer, a political ally from the opposing party, led to an unusual promise earlier this year.

"I'm going to do the best I can to keep the Republican slate clean," Ehrlich, the Maryland GOP standard-bearer, said at a fundraiser in September for the Democratic comptroller. At the time, the 84-year-old former governor and Baltimore mayor seemed to have had a clear path to re-election.

But it now appears that a well-known Republican will trip up the governor's pledge.

Stephen Abrams, a member of the Montgomery County school board, a former deputy assistant secretary of agriculture in the first Bush administration and the president of a venture capital fund, says he will run for comptroller. He plans to file the necessary paperwork with the State Board of Elections next month.

Abrams, 62, said in an interview that he is not so much bucking Ehrlich's wishes as he is laying a contingency plan for his party.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, has launched an aggressive primary bid for comptroller, arguing that Schaefer acts more like a Republican than a Democrat because of his support for Ehrlich.

Franchot's argument could gain traction during a contentious primary season in a heavily Democratic state, Abrams acknowledges.

"I'm not as sanguine as others about the outcome of the Democratic primary. We [Republicans] need to make sure we are properly covered," he said. "I think 2006 is a crazy year. I think you are going to have a huge Democratic turnout in the primary."

Abrams' entry into the race underscores that not all Republicans are willing to abide by the governor's courtesy pledge to a Democrat, while heightening questions about the state GOP's ability to make gains on Ehrlich's watch.

Ehrlich's election in 2002 marked the first time that a Republican had won the governorship in Maryland since 1966. The victory was a historic opportunity for a state party that trails in voter registration by a 2-to-1 ratio to make gains.

So for Ehrlich to promise that no Republican would run for comptroller - one of just four statewide elected positions in Maryland government, along with governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general - was remarkable for a party looking to grow.

It was also practical. With Schaefer as an ally who is popular with voters, Ehrlich is able to carry his position on the three-member state Board of Public Works, which approves most state spending.

And it is not as if the state Republican bench is deep. There is no announced Republican candidate for attorney general, or the 3rd Congressional District in the Baltimore suburbs, which is being vacated by Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and offers the best chance for a GOP pickup in Maryland. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is running for Senate, leaving a vacancy in the slot of Ehrlich's running mate. Party leaders have long said they plan to target five vulnerable Democrats in the state Senate but have not announced a slate of candidates for the seats.

More than three years after Ehrlich's election, the ratio of Democratic to Republican voters in Maryland remains about the same.

"He has not taken the Republican Party to where people thought he would take it," said Derek Walker, acting executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.

Walker acknowledged the wisdom of Republicans fielding a candidate in the comptroller's race because the primary fight between Franchot and Schaefer could mean that the winner emerges bruised and vulnerable.

Abrams - who holds graduate degrees in business and law, and is a producer of the successful Broadway musical Avenue Q - is respected by colleagues for his intellect and could make a formidable contender.

He says he would do a good job if elected to the office responsible for collecting taxes and enforcing alcohol and tobacco laws but recognizes that he might not have much support from party leaders.

"There's been no pressure not to do it," Abrams said. "If Schaefer wins the Democratic primary, I certainly do not expect to have strong support from the governor in this race. But I do believe the last eight years have demonstrated the importance of having an independent voice in that comptroller's position. It provides an additional counterbalance to the executive and legislative branch."

John M. Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, had only kind words for Abrams' decision, even though it contradicts the wishes of the governor.

"Everybody has to remember that [Democratic Comptroller] Louis Goldstein died a week before the filing deadline" in 1998, Kane said. "Our job as a state party is to make sure we have competitive candidates in all races. The governor said that he would make sure that Schaefer did not have any opposition, meaning that he wouldn't recruit anybody."

A spokesman for Ehrlich did not return an e-mail message seeking comment.

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