The acting governors

May 11, 2006

It's not often that a disgraced politician, someone convicted of racketeering and mail fraud, is called upon to do public relations work for others. But thanks to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland's toll-paying drivers are now footing the bill for a $725,000 ad campaign for E-Z Pass that features not only the incumbent governor but also Marvin Mandel, the former governor who spent 19 months in federal prison. Too bad the late Spiro T. Agnew was unavailable.

Mr. Mandel was found guilty 29 years ago and his conviction was later overturned - but not because the facts of this sorry episode were ever refuted. Here's a history lesson for the under-50 crowd: He was involved in a kickback scheme that hinged on his support for altering the number of racing days at Marlboro Race Track. In the 30-second commercial (aimed mostly at telling Ocean City visitors to come early or stay late), Mr. Mandel briefly appears at the end dressed as a tourist to offer a few dollars' tip to Mr. Ehrlich if he'll "get my bags." There is humor in this payoff, but we're not certain it's the humor that was intended.

The former governor is likely unknown to much of the local TV audience today, but he also happens to be a lobbyist (a fact that has caused conflict with his membership on the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents). One can question not only the propriety of the casting but also the effectiveness of the commercial: The few people who recognize him will be appalled.

Mr. Ehrlich would be better off scrapping what amounts to taxpayer-financed re-election spots anyway. The General Assembly nixed the practice for the coming year beginning July 1 (although toll-financed ones may slip through a loophole) and quite a few states ban them outright. No matter who wins this fall, lawmakers ought to put an unambiguous law on the books: No candidates for public office shall appear in government-financed advertising campaigns.

The governor need not feel he's being singled out in this regard. We railed against Gov. Parris N. Glendening when he pitched for the state's college savings plan on taxpayer-financed radio ads in 1998. Such blatant self-promotion on the public's dime was as distasteful then as it is today.

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