Voters get their turn

Ballots being cast today for governor, U.S. Senate, other statewide offices

Maryland Votes 2006

November 07, 2006|By Andrew A. Green and Doug Donovan | Andrew A. Green and Doug Donovan,Sun reporters

Bringing an end to a long and often nasty campaign that could determine the direction of the state for years to come, voters will cast their ballots today for governor, U.S. Senate and other statewide offices, choosing among a new generation of Democratic leaders and some of the strongest Republican candidates that Maryland has seen in years.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland's first Republican chief executive in a generation, has fought Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley to what opinion polls indicate is a virtual tie in the most expensive race the state has ever seen.

The contest, which has been brewing since the moment Ehrlich was declared the winner four years ago, has sharply divided the state in a grudge match between Maryland's two most dominant political personalities.

Matching the governor's race in intensity has been the 18- month campaign to determine a successor to Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who is retiring. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 40-year veteran of Maryland politics, faces a stiff challenge from Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has traded on a winning personality and a promise of change to bring him within a few points of the Democrat in the U.S. Senate race.

For those interested in state politics, this is as good as it gets.

And the good times might roll on. Voters have requested more than 190,000 absentee ballots, meaning that it could take days -- or weeks, if legal challenges mount -- to determine the winners.

In a dash to secure final undecided votes, the candidates packed the last hours of the race with a flurry of appearances.

O'Malley's green-and-white bus stopped yesterday for an afternoon appearance with former Vice President Al Gore at Leisure World, the Silver Spring retirement village, and ended with a rally last night atop Baltimore's Federal Hill attended by top Democrats from across the state, union members and hundreds of supporters.

"We are not a crowd; we are a community," said the mayor, echoing a refrain he has sounded throughout the race.

"Governor Ehrlich, if you don't have an interest in making our government work for working people, give it back to us," O'Malley said. "We want to make our government work again."

Ehrlich spent his last day on the campaign trail making a few stops in Easton and Dundalk before finishing with a rally in his hometown of Arbutus, a working-class community in southwestern Baltimore County that is featured prominently in some of the governor's campaign commercials.

"The values of this town are my values," he told a crowd of more than 300 supporters. "Those are the values I took to Annapolis four years ago, and those are the values we are going to take back with us."

The campaigns ended on a bitter note, with Democrats alleging dirty tricks yesterday because of a sample ballot mailed in Prince George's County that stated wrongly that former Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson had endorsed Steele and Ehrlich. The two Democrats have endorsed Cardin and other Democrats.

The ballot said it was paid for and authorized by the Bob Ehrlich for Maryland Committee and Steele for Maryland Inc. An Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman acknowledged that the governor's campaign helped pay for the sample ballot. The Steele campaign did not respond to a request for comment last night.

Johnson, in a statement, said he was "outraged and incensed" at the mailing and that "Ehrlich and Steele are truly trying to steal this election."

Democrats also were complaining about other campaign messages in heavily black Prince George's yesterday, including reports of signs that urged voters not to be a "slave" to the Democratic Party.

Ehrlich has said little about what he would do in a second term. Instead, he is running on his record, saying that if Marylanders think the state is better now than it was four years ago, they should return him to office.

The governor says he steered the state through a fiscal crisis, jump-started transportation projects (including the long-awaited Inter-County Connector in suburban Washington), created a program to clean up sewage treatment plants that empty into the Chesapeake Bay and funded a landmark education spending program passed by the General Assembly before he took office, despite the lack of a funding source.

But the second major element of Ehrlich's campaign has been an attempt to convince voters that O'Malley's record in the city makes him unfit to lead the state. Ehrlich has spent months criticizing the mayor's handling of crime and schools in Baltimore, saying that O'Malley has failed to live up to his promises in those crucial areas.

"Our race is about success versus failure, a successful state versus a failed city administration," Ehrlich said Sunday.

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