Independent ads equate the president, the governor

Maryland Votes 2006

September 29, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Independent expenditure ads - made famous by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in the 2004 presidential contest - have hit the Maryland governor's race, with a group launching a campaign to convince voters that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. governs like President Bush.

A group called the Maryland Fund has begun airing television commercials that say Ehrlich, similar to Bush, sides with corporate interests over working families. That's a central theme of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's effort to unseat the governor. But the ads - legally, anyway - have nothing to do with the Democrat's campaign.

Both the O'Malley campaign and the state Democratic Party say they had never heard of the Maryland Fund before yesterday afternoon and have no idea who's behind it. The ads and the accompanying Web site, www.ehrlichisbush.com, don't mention O'Malley or the election.

But they get the point across. One ad, which criticizes the governor for college tuition increases, ends with an announcer saying, "Call Bob Ehrlich. Tell him to stop governing like George Bush." A jingle on the Web site, to the tune of "Jingle Bells," includes the lyrics, "Ehrlich Bush, Ehrlich Bush, Ehrlich every day; he sides with big corporations that take your money away."

"I don't know who these people are, but I like 'em already," said Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson.

Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for the Republican governor's re-election campaign, called the effort "a waste of perfectly good Web space and air time."

"Governor Ehrlich is, in fact, not George Bush," she said. "I have actually seen them together in the same room and can verify they are not the same person."

The new campaign appears aimed at using the president's poor standing in Maryland to harm the governor's re-election prospects. A recent Sun poll showed Bush's approval rating in Maryland at 34 percent, with 59 percent of the state's likely voters disapproving of his performance.

Despite repeated attempts by the O'Malley campaign to link the president and the governor, the survey indicated that voters see Ehrlich differently. The poll showed the governor remains popular, with an approval rating of 51 percent. Still, O'Malley leads Ehrlich in the Sun poll, 50 percent to 44 percent, with 6 percent undecided.

The Maryland Fund Web site lists John Rouse as the executive director, but provides no contact telephone number or address.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, which maintains records of independent expenditure groups, a John Rouse established the organization on Aug. 4, giving a Washington, D.C., address but no contact e-mail.

The registration form says the group was founded "to communicate with the public on issues that indirectly relate to the election of candidates for state or local office or the legislative process in a manner that does not expressly advocate the election or defeat of a particular candidate."

Issue advocacy groups, known as 527 groups after the section of the IRS code that regulates them, played a major part in the 2004 presidential election, with groups such as moveon.org airing commercials attacking Bush and others, such as the Swift Boat Veterans, attacking Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee.

Under campaign finance regulations, the groups are not allowed to coordinate with political campaigns.

A message from Rouse on the Maryland Fund site says the group's aim "is to cut through the spin and present facts. For example, we believe that Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich has run our state similar to the way President George Bush has governed America."

The recent Sun poll showed that the central criticism levied by the group resonates with Maryland voters. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they believe large business interests have too much influence in state government, to the detriment of ordinary people.

The ads specifically criticize Ehrlich for opposing the closure of a loophole that allowed corporations to avoid paying Maryland taxes by shifting assets to Delaware, and for having "supported raising tuition at Maryland colleges by 40 percent."

The O'Malley campaign has not mentioned the tax loophole, but it has leveled the same criticism about college tuition and has used the same 40 percent figure.

The University System Board of Regents, not the governor, sets tuition rates. However, under pressure from a budget crisis, Ehrlich cut higher-education funding in his first years in office, which forced the regents to approve large tuition increases.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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