Ehrlich runs to hold on to his share of headaches

September 27, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Like any incumbent, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is running for re-election emphasizing what he's accomplished in office.

"The campaign's going very well," Ehrlich said in a recent interview. (The interview was conducted before the latest poll, which indicates that Ehrlich is only slightly behind Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley in the gubernatorial race. That's not bad for a Republican running in Maryland.)

"We're very pleased," Ehrlich continued as he talked about - and put his spin on - Maryland's schools, crime and the economy. "Test scores are up. Crime is down. The economy is white-hot. When we took office there was a projected $4 billion deficit. Now there's a $2.3 billion surplus. That's a turnaround of $6.3 billion. There are 100,000 net new jobs. We've expanded drug courts and drug treatment. It's a record of success and a record we're proud to run on."

So much for his description of his record and achievements. Now what about the headaches? In the past several months, Ehrlich has had more than his fair share. The fact that he's running again shows he apparently doesn't mind them. (As opposed to his Democratic opponent O'Malley, who's arguably had more headaches as Baltimore's chief executive and now wants to be promoted to a higher set of headaches.) Below is a partial list of some of Ehrlich's major problems this year.

One headache: the firing of Robert J. Smith from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in June. After Smith went on a public access cable talk show and said homosexuality was a "deviant lifestyle," Ehrlich canned him. The governor was criticized harshly for the move by what some consider his conservative base.

I posed several questions to Ehrlich after he fired Smith. Among them were "should devoutly religious members of his administration who hold views similar to Smith's hand in their resignations?" and "Can members of his administration comment publicly on matters of gay marriage and gay rights?"

Ehrlich had answers for both questions.

"I think when you have a public position," the governor said, "there are certain lines you have to respect. It goes with the position. You have to understand you keep your personal views to yourself. This was a public affairs program he [Smith] was on. There are probably places to express those views, but certainly not on a public affairs program."

Ehrlich said his policy applies to all matters, not just gay marriage and gay rights. He used as an example Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who like Smith, is a devout Catholic.

"Michael Steele has a very strong religious conviction against the death penalty and abortion," Ehrlich said. But, the governor added, Steele understands that the position of the Ehrlich administration is pro-death penalty and pro-choice.

"It would apply to everything," Ehrlich said. "It's common sense, and it's understood by everybody."

Ehrlich said he doesn't think his conservative base will desert him because he fired Smith.

"In fact, I haven't heard about this in months," he said.

Headache No. 2: Shortly after firing Smith, Ehrlich appointed Christopher Panos to the Baltimore District Court. Panos is openly gay. Ehrlich didn't take as much heat for Panos' appointment as he did for Smith's firing, not that he should have taken any.

"In the legal community, it was a very popular selection," Ehrlich said. "[Panos] was incredibly well-qualified. The highest qualified. I'm not checking out someone's sexuality when it comes to making appointments."

Headache No. 3 (and the most severe): the slaying of two corrections officers this year and several inmate-on-inmate assaults in Maryland prisons, especially the Maryland House of Correction at Jessup. This headache can be summed up in one phrase: the Maryland Division of Correction. Why either Ehrlich or O'Malley wants this migraine is beyond me.

But it's Ehrlich who's been criticized by some corrections officers on the issue of safety. (There have been corrections officers who've e-mailed me expressing support for Ehrlich.) The governor had a few observations about the slaying of corrections Officer David McGuinn at the Maryland House of Correction in July.

"Whenever we have an incident, I look at whether process or procedure was violated," Ehrlich said. "That has not been the case here. It was not a case of inappropriate process." (I've received letters from inmates challenging that assertion. You can and probably should take them with a grain of salt, but remember one thing: Unlike MDOC officials investigating McGuinn's death, these inmates aren't motivated to cover their own rear ends.)

The governor hinted that McGuinn's death might be the result of a new kind of inmate in Maryland prisons.

"We have a problem of increasing gang activity," Ehrlich said. "It's almost universal."

And it's a problem that's bound to get a lot worse before it gets any better. When it comes to MDOC, the winner of the gubernatorial race in November might wind up being the loser.

More on the campaign in coming columns - including, hopefully, an interview with O'Malley.

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