Stopped short of his goal

Ehrlich had hoped to leave legacy of strong GOP presence in Md.

January 14, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland's first Republican to be elected governor since 1966, came to Annapolis four years ago with one overriding goal: to establish Maryland as a two-party state where conservatives and liberals governed in balance.

But just days from leaving office after voters decided they would prefer a legislative and executive branch controlled by Democrats, even Ehrlich acknowledged that the competition of ideas that he wanted - the legacy he hoped to leave - will disappear.

"There is a sense of unfinished business around me, around my senior staff, around a lot of my supporters," Ehrlich said during an hourlong interview in Government House last week, sitting in a mansion that is being emptied box by box to make room for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his family.

"I am very fearful that without control of ... any mechanism of state government, our ability to engage or debate will be minimized."

In taking stock of his record, Ehrlich ticked off a list of accomplishments that he believes will endure: economic growth, improvements for the disabled community, environmental initiatives, judicial appointments and more.

But regardless of his policy successes, legislators, lobbyists, advocates and others tend to view the governor's legacy in largely political terms, with many Democrats and some Republicans concluding that instead of fostering competition, all Ehrlich managed to do was force Democrats to get their act together.

In 2002, Ehrlich beat what is generally regarded as a weak campaign by then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in a year when Marylanders were dissatisfied with the outgoing Democratic administration and when post-9/11 feelings were keeping the Republican president's approval ratings unusually high.

"The Democratic Party had fallen asleep," said former state Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Democrat-turned-Republican from Prince George's County.

"The Democratic Party needed to get organized and get serious. ... They learned they can lose a statewide election under the proper circumstances."

All signs from November's election suggest that the party mastered the lesson.

Democrats won the races for governor, U.S. Senate, an open congressional seat, comptroller and attorney general. They maintained their 33-14 edge in the state Senate and picked up six seats in the House of Delegates, giving them a 104-37 advantage.

There is now not a single elected Republican in Montgomery County. Charles County elected its first Democratic sheriff in 126 years.

Ehrlich's victory "may, in the long run for Republicans, be a bad thing," former Republican Del. Donald E. Murphy said. "It's been 40 years. It could be another 40 years."

Lesson for rivals

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, the chairman of the Baltimore City delegation, said that Ehrlich's victory had another effect on the Democratic Party: It made its leaders pay more attention to African-Americans.

Ehrlich picked Michael S. Steele, an African-American former chairman of the state GOP, as his running mate in 2002, the same year Townsend picked a white male former Republican.

That's a mistake Democrats, who rely heavily on the African-American vote, didn't make twice.

Although many party leaders supported Benjamin L. Cardin, who is white, over Kweisi Mfume, who is black, for the U.S. Senate, O'Malley picked an up-and-coming black delegate, Anthony G. Brown, as his running mate.

Since the election, legislative leaders have elevated African-Americans to committee chairmanships and other plum posts.

"It took a Republican to show the Democratic Party who the Democratic Party is made of," said Anderson, who is black.

"I thank Bob Ehrlich for that."

Constant battles

The aftereffects of the Ehrlich years hang over Annapolis in other ways. Democrats in the legislature battled almost constantly with Ehrlich and other Republicans over the past four years, but as Annapolis prepares for O'Malley's inauguration, legislators say that they are looking forward to a period of peace and calm.

Ehrlich butted heads with Democrats on slot machine gambling, medical malpractice reform, utility rate relief, the minimum wage, college tuition, voting procedures, health care, hiring and firing practices, and more.

He called two special sessions of the legislature during his term - something none of his predecessors did in decades.

He vetoed the products of the session twice and was overridden both times.

He opened a State of the State speech with a 10-minute lecture on the respect legislators need to show him.

He employed Joseph F. "Prince of Darkness" Steffen Jr., a self-described "political hit man" for the governor, along with others who looked for people in state agencies to fire.

He slammed Busch for blocking slots and Miller for blocking lawsuit limits.

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