Ehrlich says he's good for Baltimore

The incumbent governor stumps vigorously on his rival's turf

Maryland Votes 2006

August 08, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

One of the candidates for governor has devoted most of his time on the stump lately to trumpeting his record in revitalizing Baltimore, but it's not Mayor Martin O'Malley.

In speech after speech, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is talking about his efforts to get more historic tax credits for the city, to spur redevelopment beyond Baltimore's "islands of prosperity," to expand drug treatment and, above all, to improve education for Baltimore schoolchildren.

The most recent two television ads of his campaign focus on Baltimore City schools, and in the latest he looks into the camera and pledges to do "whatever it takes to put every child on a path to success right away."

Ehrlich has ramped up his appearances in the city recently, visiting Park Heights and East Baltimore and speaking to Baptist ministers and Jewish senior citizens. But he's also talking about the city when he goes to the suburbs, even in parts of the state far removed from the city's orbit.

When he went to Leisure World, a huge retirement community in Montgomery County, to discuss senior issues, he actually spent most of his time - and got his biggest positive reaction - talking about the city schools.

"We don't cede one inch anywhere in this state, from Prince George's County to East North Avenue," Ehrlich said after a stop at the Baltimore Museum of Art this week, referring to the headquarters of the city school administration.

"I'm a Baltimore kid," said Ehrlich, a Republican who grew up in Arbutus in Baltimore County and attended the prestigious Gilman School in the city on scholarship. "What happens to Baltimore is very relevant to what happens to the state of Maryland."

Multiple goals

Ehrlich's strategy could produce multiple benefits. It could undercut O'Malley's appeal among suburban and rural voters by directly challenging his record as a manager, and could also appeal to any city voters who, seven years into the O'Malley administration, have soured on the mayor.

If Ehrlich can cut into O'Malley's margin in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, it will be more difficult for O'Malley to win statewide.

A spokesman for the Democrat called Ehrlich's election-year focus on Baltimore disingenuous. The governor has spent less on drug treatment and police protection in the city than his predecessor and has done nothing for the schools but pick fights with the city, O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said.

"He tries using the city as a prop when he's trying to look like a compassionate conservative," Kearney said. "That's about it."

But when Ehrlich talks about the city school system in the suburbs, he gets a big reaction from his generally white and conservative audiences. He said that historically such voters have been turned off by talk of city issues, but not anymore.

"As the suburbs become wealthier, more prosperous, there's an even greater concern about where their tax dollars are being spent," Ehrlich said. "That's why there is so much concern about the school system."

Richard W. Montalto, who was Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey's campaign manager in 1994, said Sauerbrey, a former schoolteacher, had plenty of ideas for transforming the city schools, such as the use of vouchers.

But, he said, neither the media nor voters paid much attention to them. Instead, the message that resonated with the suburban voters who nearly put her in the governor's mansion that year was her call for shrinking the size of government and cutting taxes.

"We talked about it among ourselves," Montalto said. "It was an important issue for us, but we just couldn't get anyone to think it was an issue."

Ehrlich only occasionally mentions cutting the size of government on the stump - the state work force shrank under his leadership, but the size of the state budget grew rapidly, especially this year - and doesn't talk about cutting taxes.

But when he ties an impassioned appeal not to abandon city kids to voters' pecuniary interests, they pay attention.

"You could not believe in Maryland in 2006 we could have these kinds of numbers," Ehrlich said at Leisure World, referring to dismal test scores in some city schools.

"Guess whose tax dollars are going there? I'm looking at 'em," he said, eliciting a gasp from the crowd. "We pumped an additional $176 million from Montgomery County and every other county into Baltimore City for nothing."

There are limits to how far Ehrlich is trying to spread his message about city schools. Although he has begun airing television ads about them in Hagerstown and Salisbury, Baltimore didn't come up in a recent series of stops in Cumberland and Frostburg, even when the governor talked about his education record.

"We are different. We have different needs," said Lee Fiedler, the nonpartisan mayor of Cumberland. "We're not a lot of votes, I know, but it's important to our people to feel understood."

As for city voters, even Ehrlich supporters acknowledge that the governor has virtually no chance of winning a majority there.

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