Governor calls Assembly session extremely partisan

Ehrlich speech hints at themes for his re-election campaign


In reviewing the successes and failures of what he dubbed an extremely partisan General Assembly session, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. provided a glimpse yesterday of the issues that could shape his campaign for re-election and spoke pointedly about what he believes is unprecedented friction between Democrats and Republicans in Annapolis.

Most of all, on the heels of a grueling 90-day session, Ehrlich appeared ready to transition to the campaign season.

"We need to have an election in Maryland," said Ehrlich, a Republican who has not officially announced his re-election bid, during a morning news event. "It's time for an election."

Seated at a table in a State House reception room with his shirtsleeves rolled up, Ehrlich promoted those legislative initiatives he considers a personal victory - specifically stem cell research and anti-air pollution proposals. And he chastised Democrats for not allowing a ballot initiative that would codify marriage as between a man and a woman.

The first two subjects illustrate the kind of social and environmental issues that might appeal to liberals in suburban Montgomery County, for example. The marriage matter, however, is likely to connect with Ehrlich's base, those voters on the Eastern Shore and in rural Western Maryland who traditionally back Republicans.

Ehrlich needs to court the former and keep the latter to beat a Democrat in a state where Republicans are outnumbered about 2 to 1, said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Because Maryland is a blue state, "the politics that we see in this state is fairly representative of the people," Norris said. "Ehrlich's election was an aberration. It was an aberration because of a very, very weak Democratic candidate. In a typical election year, a good Democratic candidate should beat a good Republican candidate just based on the numbers."

Ehrlich, who defeated Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002 to become the first GOP governor in three decades, also took several opportunities to bash Democrats. He criticized their override of his veto of the so-called Wal-Mart bill, which required companies with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health care or pay the difference to the state. Ehrlich called a voting reform bill that named sites for early voting "silly" and "transparent." And he blasted lawmakers for turning back a takeover of Baltimore schools.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate minority leader from the Eastern Shore, said Ehrlich isn't simply crafting a campaign persona; rather, he is continuing a conversation with voters about those issues that matter to him. Stoltzfus said the Baltimore schools battle, which pits Ehrlich against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mayor Martin O'Malley, has deeply frustrated Ehrlich. The issue, Stoltzfus said, is about more than politics.

"He cares, he really does," Stoltzfus said, recalling a recent conversation with the governor. "It's convenient politically perhaps, but this is where his eyes narrow and his lips get tight, and he gets very upset."

Others see a governor looking to set up a coalition of support that will keep him in office come November.

David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, said Ehrlich should not attempt to take credit for bills - such as stem cells and the Healthy Air Act - that he once opposed.

"The difference between the two parties is this: The Democrats led on the major issues of the day, and Bob Ehrlich followed," Paulson said. "It has nothing to do with left or right."

Ehrlich took time during his remarks to discuss what he believes is a shift in Democratic Party politics from the left to the far left. He said policymaking in Annapolis has suffered because of that change.

"The Democratic Party is dead, and the new reality of the Democratic leadership is a very left-leaning group representing a left-leaning party," he said.

The governor waxed nostalgic about his days as a member of the House of Delegates in the late 1980s. He said the more conservative Democrats who he believes provided balance to the party during that time are no longer in office.

"What used to be a philosophical divide is now a partisan divide," he said.

Norris said talk of the Democratic Party moving left is an overstatement, one that could help Ehrlich during the campaign, and that the party must work quickly to argue against it.

"If the Democrats do not come out beginning right now in a unified way and counter that, then he may turn out to be effective," Norris said.

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