Candidates can't show faces on state's dime

Promotional ads showing office-seekers prohibited

April 18, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. apparently won't be coming by to help with the household chores this year - not between midsummer and Election Day, at least.

Under a little-noticed provision that legislative leaders inserted into the Maryland budget, Ehrlich and other candidates are barred from appearing in state-financed promotional ads while running for statewide office this year.

The far-reaching ban, proposed by the House of Delegates and accepted by the Senate, will take effect July 1 and could pull the plug on several familiar ad campaigns featuring the Republican governor and his occasional Democratic sidekick, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

In the past year, the two have teamed up in publicly funded TV commercials to promote such programs as "Reach the Beach" and E-ZPass, promotions that have grated on political foes.

Ehrlich has also appeared in tourism ads in which an eager-to-please governor shows up at people's homes to take over their daily burdens so they can enjoy the wonders of Maryland.

Dennis Castleman, the state's chief marketing officer, said the ads have been effective in promoting Maryland. He said the General Assembly's ban is likely to cost the state money because it will not be able to use promotional materials that it has paid for.

"The cost will be staggering to the state," he said.

Others suspect that the ads have more to do with promoting Ehrlich and Schaefer than with any governmental purpose.

Among the critics is Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who serves on the committee that wrote the ad-ban language into the budget law.

"Democrat or Republican, there should not be a deluge of taxpayer-funded, thinly veiled campaign ads masquerading as public service announcements," he said.

"It's a very healthy reform, and hopefully next year we can make it permanent," said Franchot, who is running against Schaefer for the Democratic nomination for comptroller.

Schaefer's spokesman did not return several pages.

The language of the ban is broad, barring the executive branch from spending state funds - including "state funds appropriated to any local jurisdiction" - to promote state programs through billboards or print and electronic media if they include the voice or image of someone who has filed to run for a statewide office this year.

According to General Assembly staff members, the provision did not provoke significant opposition during the House-Senate budget conference committee from Republican legislators or from administration officials.

Castleman, who said he didn't learn about the provision until it was essentially a done deal, had no explanation of why an alarm wasn't sounded sooner.

The budget provision is so sweeping, Castleman said, that he is not sure whether the state can distribute roadmaps with the governor's picture on them.

Castleman pointed to the language regarding local jurisdiction and said he is consulting with the state attorney general's office to determine whether the law might invalidate certain state grants to localities where the chief executive is a candidate for higher office.

He noted that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan - the main rivals for the Democratic nomination to run against Ehrlich - could fall into that category.

"I don't believe it was intended for Baltimore City, but it may have that unintended consequence," Castleman said.

Raquel M. Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said the only thing she could think of that could be affected is the mayor's taped welcome at the Baltimore Visitor Center. She said it would be a shame to have to take it down but not a big deal.

"If we had to comply with the law for a few months, we would certainly do that," she said.

Montgomery County spokesman David Weaver said Duncan has no state-funded ad campaigns.

Kevin Enright, a spokesman for Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., said state lawyers are researching questions surrounding the ban. One thing that is clear, he said, is that it does apply to his boss.

Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the policy adopted by the legislature is "wonderful," even if its proponents' motives were less than pure.

"Common Cause pretty generally likes to see a the playing field leveled," she said. "I would like to see it stay in perpetuity."

Donald Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, greeted news of the ban with hearty laughter.

"This is why they call this the silly season," he said.

Norris noted that Ehrlich is hardly the first governor to appear in a public service announcement. "It's been going on probably since the get-go of tourism advertising by states and localities," he said.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening - who eschewed obvious self-promotion in his early years as governor - lost his proclaimed "shyness" as his first-term popularity dropped. By the time he ran for re-election in 1998, he had appeared in several ad campaigns.

During his second term, Glendening ceded much of the face time in state ads to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, his preferred successor. Her appearances had largely ended by the time the 2002 campaign began in earnest, and she lost to Ehrlich in the general election.

One reason opponents might object to Ehrlich's ads is that by the standard of public service announcements, they are considered pretty good.

"I can't imagine wooden Parris doing a very good job of representing the state, but Ehrlich is very photogenic," Norris said. "I don't think anyone would complain about the governor of a state doing an ad to promote the state except his partisan opponents."

But Norris said he had no doubt that Republicans would support such a ban if a Democrat were in the State House. "Nobody is on the moral high road here," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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