Trying to bring an intense Capitol Hill debate into the Maryland governor's race, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley asked Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to co-sign a letter sent yesterday asking President Bush to support a higher federal minimum wage.
O'Malley, a Democrat running for governor, took a page from his party's national strategy of positioning itself as an ally of working families, and requested that Ehrlich join a call for the president to support a minimum wage vote without tying it to an estate-tax reduction as proposed by Republicans in Washington.
"[T]he Congressional Republican leadership has endangered the prospects of this small minimum wage increase by linking it to a tax break for a tiny handful of America's wealthiest heirs and heiresses, like Paris Hilton," O'Malley said in his written request to the governor made this week.
Ehrlich yesterday rejected the offer, without seeing it.
"It's classic class warfare," Ehrlich said during an appearance in the city. "It's all we've seen so far [from O'Malley]. I wish he would spend more time worrying about the city of Baltimore.
"Raising the minimum wage helps some people at the margin and hurts some people at the margin," he added. "It's a lousy way to fight poverty."
O'Malley had little reason to believe that Ehrlich would accept his invitation. The governor opposed a $1 increase in the state minimum wage - to $6.15 an hour - that went into effect this year after the General Assembly overrode Ehrlich's veto. The governor has argued that such increases can actually hurt low-wage workers by increasing costs to companies that may flee, reducing jobs.
With the change pushed by Democratic legislative leaders, Maryland joined at least 17 other states and the District of Columbia in setting a rate higher than the federal standard. The federal minimum wage has been $5.15 for nearly 10 years and the bill being considered by Congress would increase it in three stages to $7.25 by 2009.
Ehrlich aides said the request was little more than a partisan ploy. Political observers say O'Malley is using the issue to link the popular Republican governor with his unpopular GOP colleagues in Washington, especially Bush. In a Sun poll last month, 55 percent of likely voters said they approved of Ehrlich's job performance, while 34 percent said the president was doing a good job.
O'Malley's latest radio commercial takes a similar tack, saying Ehrlich "repeatedly sides with George Bush."
Part of that strategy aims to cast O'Malley as a middle-class advocate and Ehrlich as a friend to narrow special interests. It's an issue O'Malley will continue to push today when he tours the Baltimore Laborers' Training Center in Baltimore County, but one Ehrlich has yet to highlight.
"Governor Ehrlich is too focused on improving Baltimore City's dysfunctional school system to entertain Mayor O'Malley's daily publicity stunts," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman.
The U.S. Senate is currently debating a bill that includes provisions for both increasing the minimum wage and cutting the estate tax - goals of Democrats and Republicans, respectively.
O'Malley's letter to Bush, which Ehrlich did not see nor sign, asks the president to persuade Congress to give the wage increase an up-or-down vote without tying it to an estate-tax reduction. O'Malley believes the proposed $2.10 increase over three years to the federal $5.15 minimum wage would help some of Maryland's lowest-earning families earn $2,000 more per year.
Fawell said his office had not received the letter that O'Malley campaign officials said they faxed to Ehrlich's Annapolis office Monday.
James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, said O'Malley's attempt to link Ehrlich "with an unpopular president is obviously one way to take votes away from him."
"This is an opportunity to try to put the governor on the spot in terms of his opposition [to minimum wage increases]," Gimpel said. "There's not going to be a Bob Ehrlich out there campaigning against the minimum wage."
O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the facts in the letters to Ehrlich and Bush speak for themselves. In both letters, O'Malley used statistics from the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to highlight the differences between the issues: Raising the minimum wage to $7.25 would help 6.6 million Americans make an average of $1,200 more; the estate tax break would help "8,200 of the wealthiest Americans" earn an average of $1.3 million more.
"This legislation speaks volumes to what priorities our leadership values - do we fight for interest of families that work hard and play by the rules, or do we fight, instead, for the narrow special interests," O'Malley wrote Bush. "Quite simply, this is a matter of basic fairness."
The White House press office said it had not received the letter late yesterday.
Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.