2 candidates score points with themes

Ehrlich, O'Malley go on attack and voters are responding

Sun Poll

September 24, 2006|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

Their attacks - in television commercials and at campaign events - have been relentless.

The Republican refrain from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s re-election campaign goes like this: Baltimore schools are failing, and Mayor Martin O'Malley has rejected state help at every turn.

The Democratic drumbeat from O'Malley is that Ehrlich is a big-business ally who is out of touch with the fiscal squeeze on working families.

With 44 days before the Nov. 7 election, a new Sun poll indicates that both campaign themes are resonating with voters.

Nearly two-thirds of the 815 likely voters polled by Potomac Inc. from Sept. 15 to Sept. 18 said they agreed that "large business interests have too much influence in state government, neglecting the concerns of ordinary people."

Twenty-eight percent disagreed.

Among Democrats, who have a 2 to 1 registration advantage over GOP voters in Maryland, 75 percent supported the concept.

There was a near-even split on the question among Republicans.

"Connecting the Ehrlich administration to untoward big-business influence appears to have saliency," wrote Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc. "This underlying perception, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty, crosses all areas of the state and demographic groups."

The poll - which shows O'Malley leading Ehrlich by six points - has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points .

The poll also found that a near-majority, 48 percent, agreed with the assertion that Baltimore's "school system is failing, and it's best to give the state greater control over running these schools as soon as possible."

Twenty-seven percent disagreed.

The statement received the support of roughly six in 10 voters in the counties around Baltimore that were crucial to Ehrlich's victory in 2002, when he became Maryland's first Republican governor in more than 30 years.

Greater state control of city schools got support from Democrats and Republicans alike, in the Baltimore region and elsewhere.

"Ehrlich may have found his wedge issue versus O'Malley," Haller said.

In a state where education ranks among the top concerns of voters, the governor could be attracting Democrats with his schools thrust, he said.

The issue is "explosively charged" in Baltimore's surrounding counties, where support for a state takeover is "very significant," Haller said.

Carl Cherney of Towson, a Democrat who voted for Ehrlich in 2002, said the Democratic-controlled General Assembly has obstructed the governor's agenda - especially with public schools.

"I think what the city schools require is more [state] oversight," said Cherney, 54, who works for a home-fabricating company. "What we see in Baltimore City is certainly a failing school system."

He said his taxes would be better spent on improving schools than on welfare programs for city residents who do not get the education they deserve.

O'Malley's "typical political rhetoric" about Ehrlich being tied to big corporations is disingenuous, he said. "If there was no big business, there'd be no city," he said.

Barbara Brown, 64, of Baltimore's Northwood neighborhood, said that her two children are city school graduates and that it is unfair to blame all of the system's problems on O'Malley - especially since the schools are run by a board jointly appointed by the mayor and governor.

"I don't think it's fair to say it's solely O'Malley's fault," Brown said. "I don't think the state should have complete control. The city needs some say-so."

The retired state employee said she "feels Ehrlich is more for big businesses" because he raised health care costs on state workers. But she said O'Malley did the same thing to city workers such as her husband.

Still, the debate surrounding a proposed but delayed 72 percent increase in BGE electric rates made her believe that O'Malley - who fought the rates boost - has "the poor man's interest at heart."

Augustus Lacomb, 65, a registered Republican from Joppa in Harford County, rejected the notion that business interests have inordinate influence on state government.

Lacomb said the electricity rate increase was the result of Democrats in the Assembly who helped pass a utility deregulation law in 1999, not Ehrlich's administration.

"I don't think over-regulation of business is government's business whatsoever," said Lacomb, a retired Army employee, citing his disagreement with the General Assembly's attempt to force large employers - namely Wal-Mart - to pay more for employee health care or pay a tax to the state.

For some voters, neither campaign theme is hitting home.

Matthew Coursey, 35, a Frederick Democrat, said he disagreed with O'Malley's argument that business interests hold sway over Annapolis, and also with Ehrlich's call for greater state control of city schools.

"While I don't support Ehrlich, I don't see him as an arch-conservative," Coursey said. "My problem is that he's a partisan."

But he said he also does not believe the state offers solutions for city schools.

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