Mr. O'Malley's hot line

November 09, 2006

On election night, Mayor Martin O'Malley joked that one of his first chores in Annapolis would be to install a hot line to Towson. His meaning was obvious. Four years ago, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. largely on his 65,000-vote margin of victory in Baltimore County. That margin virtually evaporated Tuesday thanks in no small part to County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s blitz of commercials complaining that Mr. Ehrlich never returns his calls.

The lessons in this are numerous - and buck the conventional wisdom that Mr. Ehrlich lost simply because he was caught in the tsunami of voter disdain for President Bush. While that clearly played a part, it's not the whole picture. And Mr. O'Malley would be wise to note the underlying theme of Mr. Smith's attacks - that for Mr. Ehrlich, partisan politics trumped policy - when it comes to charting a course for the next four years.

Across the nation, there were 36 governor races. How many incumbent Republicans were swept away? Mr. Ehrlich was the only one (although Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's lead is small enough to give his challenger hope). Even governors in such Democratic-leaning states as Vermont and Hawaii kept their heads above water.

In Maryland, Mr. O'Malley fared well in traditional Democratic strongholds, but on a percentage basis, the outcome wasn't much different from Ms. Townsend's results of 2002. So why did Maryland's incumbent fare so poorly in Baltimore's suburbs? Mr. Smith defined the problem in purely local terms: The governor won't work with me on storm damage from Isabel, on a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal, or on getting police to patrol county light rail stations, to name a few.

Four years ago, suburban Democrats crossed party lines to support Mr. Ehrlich. But since then, Mr. Ehrlich has been complaining nonstop about Democrats. The divisiveness, his unwillingness to compromise, and likely his unremitting Baltimore bashing didn't play well with these voters, many of whom feel a personal stake in the city.

That now puts the onus on Mr. O'Malley to demonstrate that he can govern in a more evenhanded manner. To do that, he will need to reach out and create an administration willing to consider opposing points of view. The GOP lost ground in the General Assembly on Tuesday - perhaps by eight to 10 seats in the House and possibly one seat in the Senate - but that should not be viewed as a license to ignore Republicans.

Achieving consensus won't be easy. Neither Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller nor House Speaker Michael E. Busch is accustomed to taking orders from a governor, Democrat or not. Mr. O'Malley will need hot lines to their offices, too, and to Mr. Smith's counterparts in Upper Marlboro, Ellicott City, Rockville and elsewhere. Mr. O'Malley will have to develop an appetite - or at least a tolerance - for criticism that his predecessor lacked. Or he'll risk making the same politically fatal mistakes.

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