Ehrlich questions Assembly ad ban

Promotions that show politicians target of new law

May 09, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

Defying the General Assembly's efforts to curb his appearances in state-paid advertising in an election year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. unveiled a new television commercial yesterday promoting stress-free travel to the Eastern Shore - this time with former Gov. Marvin Mandel as a sidekick.

The ad urges motorists to go early and stay late when visiting the Shore and to use E-ZPass to get there. It is expected to begin running in the Baltimore market this week and in the Washington region next month.

The Republican governor is launching the ad campaign despite a provision put in the budget by the Democratic-led Assembly restricting the use of state money to distribute advertisements that include political candidates after early July.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs the E-ZPass program, said it plans to keep the humorous ad campaign - which also includes a spot produced last year starring Ehrlich and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer - on the air through June 30.

But at a State House news conference, Ehrlich kept open the possibility of extending its run. When asked how far into the election year he plans to run the ads, the sunny Ehrlich of the commercials turned defiant. He said his lawyers were studying the budget language and had yet to decide whether it applied to the ads.

"Do you believe we actually have to look into the appropriateness of us appearing on road maps as a result of the General Assembly?" he said.

The governor complained that "nobody raised a peep" when past Democratic governors made and aired public service announcements.

"We are not going to abide by small, partisan maneuvers implemented by small, partisan people," he said.

In recent decades, other governors, as well as Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002, have appeared in public service announcements in the year leading up to election campaigns. But often, under media scrutiny, they backed away from airing them once the election season was in full swing.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening appeared in ads promoting a new prepaid tuition plan and urging vehicle theft prevention in early 1998 - a year in which he was seeking re-election. But after being hammered in editorials, he let their use lapse.

Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said that while governors Schaefer and Glendening might have benefited from appearing in such ads, she could not recall them doing so as "blatantly" as Ehrlich.

"The closer you get to Election Day, the more it's like a campaign advertisement," she said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, said the governor should obey the law, which restricts the use of money from the fiscal 2007 budget to distribute ads that include the image of anyone who has filed as a candidate in this year's election.

"He's going to have $20 million of his own money to run his campaign. I don't know why he should use taxpayers' dollars to promote his candidacy," Miller said.

Under the budget language, the state is barred from spending money from the 2007 budget year on ads carrying the image of someone who has filed as a candidate in this year's election. The budget year begins July 1, while the filing deadline is July 3.

Kelly L. Melhem, a spokeswoman for the transportation authority, said the agency spent about $125,000 to produce this year's version of the ad. She said the agency has budgeted $600,000 for media buys for the campaign through June 30 but none after that date.

This year's ad presents Ehrlich in the role of a beach hotel clerk advising a family of vacationers to leave early and stay late on their trip in order to avoid peak traffic and to take in some of the Eastern Shore's other attractions.

At the end, Mandel appears in a floral Hawaiian shirt, asking Ehrlich, "Could you get my bags?"

The casting of Mandel continues Ehrlich's public rehabilitation of a former governor who dominated state politics in the early 1960s only to be pushed out of office by a 1977 mail fraud conviction. Mandel's conviction was overturned in 1988, but not before he served a term in federal prison.

Mandel, who now serves as an Ehrlich appointee on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, appeared at the news conference and reminisced about the opening of the first Bay Bridge and its second span two decades later.

Schaefer did not appear. Spokesman Mike Golden said the comptroller was attending a funeral. He said Schaefer was invited to reprise his role in last year's ad but declined.

"He had the opportunity. He just turned it down. He didn't like the script," Golden said.

The spokesman said Schaefer, who is facing a potentially tough Democratic primary challenge for the first time in 20 years, thought the ad wouldn't run long enough to make it worth the effort.

Golden said that while some of the legislature's restrictions are "a little off base," the comptroller believes "the law is the law" and July 1 is the cutoff.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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