Ex-governors guaranteed a portrait - nothing more

June 08, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

Gov. Martin O'Malley sat in the audience last week as the portrait of his once and perhaps future adversary, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., was unveiled.

Some have said these two young lions of Maryland politics are antagonistic twins destined for more rounds of political combat. However, their wives, Kendel Ehrlich and Katie Curran O'Malley - as if signaling some kind of sartorial truce - came to the event in essentially the same dress.

The emcee, Edward T. Norris, is a convicted felon and talk-show host who, before his conviction, had been head of the Baltimore police for Mr. O'Malley and then superintendent of the state police for Mr. Ehrlich.

Though it had elements of farce, the event was seen by some as a second coming-out party for Mr. Ehrlich, who may be preparing to run for governor again.

When he was contemplating his race in 2002, Mr. Ehrlich said he was certain of two things: He could beat the Democratic front-runner, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and he could not beat Mr. O'Malley, the rock-star leader of an Irish band and mayor of Baltimore.

He was right on both counts. He became governor, defeating Ms. Townsend after Mr. O'Malley decided not to run. But four years later, even with the usually decisive heft of incumbency behind him, the second part of his prediction came true. Mr. O'Malley did run - and beat him convincingly. The GOP had gained little, if any, strength even with one of its own in the governor's mansion.

Since then, Mr. Ehrlich's continued public presence, a year and a half after his loss, led inevitably to renewed speculation about his future last week, when the portrait was unveiled.

The image will take its place in the grand ceremonial room on the second floor of the nation's oldest still-in-use state capitol building.

But was there anything to all this, beyond madcap ceremony?

If you ever get to be governor of Maryland, your image - flanked by that of a favorite pet or the state flag - will join in a kind of static march along the wall in four- or eight-year steps as governors come and go. With Mr. Ehrlich's arrival in the august procession, the portrait of Harry W. Nice (governor from 1935 to 1939) ran out of room and headed for storage.

The portrait honor, to be sure, has nothing to do with length of time in office, or success - or scandal. A governor might spend only two years in the office and then move on to higher places, as Republican Spiro T. Agnew did in 1968. He left to become vice president under Richard M. Nixon, only to plead no contest to charges of corruption during his time in the governor's office.

Mr. Agnew ended up in disgrace, but his portrait hangs in Annapolis nevertheless, a reminder that success and downfall can be partners. Likewise for Democrat Marvin Mandel - said to have been one of the most innovative of Maryland's governors - who spent 20 months in federal prison. His conviction was later overturned, but even if it had not been, his likeness would still be on the wall.

You can also fail over four years' time, as Mr. Ehrlich did, to pass the one piece of legislation (legalization of slot machine gambling) that you seemed to care most about, without forfeiting an honor that goes to all former governors.

Indeed, you can sit in the office for four years without doing much governing at all, allowing a budget deficit to fester. Failing to address important issues will not bar you from the wall, either.

Then, in the fullness of time, you might try to use a radio talk show to keep your name before the public. You may want to remember, though, that most, if not all, of the talk-show jocks were with you the last time, when you lost.

The great game of politics is like a kaleidoscope, a mesmerizing blur of events and personalities falling together or apart. Decisions have to be made on horseback. There has to be nerve and will and money and often a touch of glamour to make anything happen. Today's rock-star hero - someone like Martin O'Malley - could be tomorrow's goat.

Maybe voters will be in the market for someone who will tell them they don't have to pay for roads and schools and prisons and health care.

Maybe they'll be yearning for a no-government governor in 2010.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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