Ehrlich keeps profile high, options open

Some infer preparation for a political comeback

October 31, 2007|By Kelly Brewington and Michael Dresser | Kelly Brewington and Michael Dresser,SUN REPORTERS

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. seems to be everywhere. He and his wife, Kendel, take calls on a weekly radio show. He's exhorting Marylanders to oppose his successor's tax and slots plan - an "insulting, phony piece of junk," he says. He has written a newspaper op-ed piece chastising the new administration. He's talking to college students at Towson University and fills in later this week behind the counter of an Annapolis-area coffee shop.

What, exactly, is Bob Ehrlich up to?

When he left office 10 months ago, defeated convincingly by Democrat Martin O'Malley, Ehrlich opened a Maryland office for a powerhouse North Carolina law firm. Some of his staff joined him.

The former Republican congressman publicly said that he was moving on and that he would not utter the new governor's name.

He avoids mentioning O'Malley by name. But he has injected himself into the state's hottest political debate, raising speculation about his role now and his plans for the future, including a potential rematch with O'Malley.

"It looks very much to me that he really wants to make a political comeback," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. "He has done everything he can to keep himself in the public eye."

Asked yesterday about his political plans, Ehrlich was coy.

"It is far too early to even begin that discussion. We have over three years before the next election," Ehrlich said. He said his thinking was in about the same place that it was right after the 2006 election, when he openly speculated that Maryland was too liberal to accept a politician with his views. "I just need to figure [out] whether Maryland is trending that far left."

Political observers say Ehrlich, an Annapolis-area resident who is also helping the presidential campaign of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, is simply doing what any politician with higher aspirations would.

"Any former governor, especially one at Bob Ehrlich's young age, can be a public policy player, and I think any good politician would proceed at a manner that leaves their options open," said Kevin Igoe, a Republican strategist.

Others say Ehrlich's goals are more calculated.

"He's just sitting back waiting for O'Malley to stumble," said Frank A. DeFilippo, a longtime state political commentator who was press secretary to former Gov. Marvin Mandel. "What he's trying to do is shore up his base and try to stay relevant."

But it's unlikely that effort will influence state lawmakers gathering in Annapolis for a special session to consider O'Malley's tax and slots plan, DeFilippo said.

"I don't think he's having that much influence with the Republicans - the Republicans have been in disarray anyway," he said. "With the governor's tax proposal, what he has been able to do is pull them together and unify them."

Still, some Democratic lawmakers believe that Ehrlich is playing a behind-the-scenes role in Annapolis, pushing legislators to defeat a plan that O'Malley says is needed to close a projected $1.7 billion gap.

"Everyone's saying Governor Ehrlich is orchestrating the Republican opposition and [an] obstruction to Governor O'Malley's program," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat.

But Del. Christopher B. Shank, the House minority whip from Western Maryland, who has appeared on Ehrlich's radio program, rejected that view.

"This idea that Governor Ehrlich is somehow the Wizard of Oz behind the green curtain pulling all the strings is just not true," he said. "[By] the same token, many of us wish he were here dealing with these issues, because we think they would be dealt with far more effectively."

Shank and other Republican leaders said they welcome the forum that Ehrlich has provided on his radio program to foster debate on state issues.

"He certainly is reminding his listeners and the public of these issues," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, the minority leader from Frederick County. "Anytime you have an individual who can get the public interested and activated, how is society harmed by that?"

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, took a more cynical view, dubbing Ehrlich's post-gubernatorial role "critic-in-chief of the O'Malley administration." Frosh contrasted Ehrlich's role as ex-governor with that of his predecessor, Democrat Parris N. Glendening.

"Glendening left the stage and said, `OK, it's up to somebody else now, and I wish him good luck,'" Frosh said. "I cannot remember a time in Ehrlich's term when Glendening sniped at him or criticized him or attacked him, and clearly they had very different views and very different styles."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it was "only natural" for Ehrlich to want to see O'Malley's plan fail, given the struggle Ehrlich faced trying to pass legislation to legalize slots.

"He's bitter," said Miller, who appeared on Ehrlich's radio program recently to discuss the special session.

"He has a bully pulpit in live talk radio and so he has two hours a week, as though he were governor of the state, talking to citizens," he said. "Retired generals, they turn in their uniform, but retired politicians, their mouths just keep on going."

Ehrlich pounded the anti-tax drums during an appearance yesterday at Towson University Professor Richard E. Vatz's advanced persuasion class.

At times, the classroom appearance took on the sounds of a nascent campaign to reclaim his former office.

"Why in the world did Maryland lose a governor like Bob Ehrlich?" asked Vatz, an admirer.

"That's my thought too," Ehrlich interjected.

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