As election draws closer, let the spin cycle begin

April 30, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

In his kickoff re-election campaign speech, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declared that his administration's record of accomplishment "confounds our opponents."

There is truth in that assertion.

What is really confounding is the governor's penchant for claiming credit for policy positions he had earlier opposed or greeted with indifference.

Last week, for example, Mr. Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele applauded themselves for a measure - engineered by the General Assembly over Mr. Ehrlich's objections - to improve teacher pensions in Maryland.

The governor put no money in his budget for this purpose. The Assembly made cuts to fund the enhancements in retirement benefits.

Similarly, Maryland air will be fresher, the governor suggests, as the result of efforts he made. Once again, the Assembly pushed past his objections to impose tougher air-pollution standards.

In the matter of stem cell research, Mr. Ehrlich declined to be crystal clear on just what he supports. Would he be in favor of research on human embryos or research limited to work done on adult stem cells? The difference is important and full of political significance. Some important elements of his support comes from those who see embryonic stem research as akin to abortion.

When the Assembly pressed for stem cell research funds in the amount of $20 million, he said the bill was not necessary because he had provided for the research in his budget. Later, when legislators insisted on having its approach become law, Mr. Ehrlich said the bill was pretty much in line with his desires.

The governor's opponents on Baltimore school reform are not so much confounded by his positions as they are dismayed.

His opening campaign volley on this subject was aimed at Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"Neglect of the city schoolchildren is a disgrace. We are sentencing another generation of kids to welfare, jail. I'm not going to stand for it," he told business leaders at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. "The people will not stand for it."

He gets an A for passion.

His timing is, at best, confounding.

Ridiculing his Democratic opponents in the Assembly, he said he had hauled state senators into his office so they could tell him why they opposed a state takeover of the city schools.

There was, he said, no "intellectual argument against it." Democrats were sentencing Baltimore kids to answer a "party call."

But some of the nation's and Maryland's leading intellects find much to criticize in the governor's takeover attempt.

Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr. said, "I don't think this action is necessary. I think the system is progressing."

Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, one of the state's most respected advocates for better education, said, "There is some truth to the bleak picture of the Baltimore schools that the Maryland State Department of Education paints. But it's not the whole truth, and as a result, many state mandates, including [the] attempted takeover of four high schools, are unsound and almost certainly counterproductive."

Given how much upheaval is likely to accompany a takeover, the state's plan for making things better must be an obvious improvement over the status quo. The argument has been, largely, nothing could be worse.

Mr. Ehrlich's passion, once again, is admirable. But he displays it as if saving the city schools had been a single-minded, holy mission on a par with his desire to bring slot machines to Maryland.

The truth, of course, is quite different. It's Mr. Ehrlich who has been confounded - denied the signature initiative of his four years in the governor's mansion.

It is, perhaps, the prerogative of a governor to take some credit for the legislation he signs into law. It is the voters' responsibility, when deciding who should govern Maryland for the next four years, to understand where their leader might lead if left entirely to his own devices,

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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