Although former Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is still officially pondering a race for his old office, Gov. Martin O'Malley is eager for the battle he thinks is coming, according to the governor's campaign manager, Tom Russell.
Russell had harsh words for the former governor, a Republican, but was also frank about the problems Democrats face in the heated national political atmosphere this year. He spoke to about 30 members of the Columbia Democratic Club in a small community center meeting room in the planned town Wednesday night.
Although Russell said the state's political climate now is worse for Democrats than it was in 1994, when Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey almost beat Democrat Parris N. Glendening for governor, O'Malley "is actually looking forward to" a race against Ehrlich, who he said is vulnerable.
"He's no Scott Brown," Russell said, referring to the little known Massachusetts Republican state senator who won the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy's Democratic seat in the U.S. Senate. Ehrlich won't be an unknown outsider if he runs, Russell said.
"He can't be an empty vessel," Russell said about candidate Ehrlich, who lost his own re-election bid to the Democrat O'Malley in 2006. "He had four years in good economic times, and he did nothing with it," Russell told the club members at the Jeffers Hill Community Center. "He coasted. He was Bob the friendly guy," Russell chided. "He didn't do his job."
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell responded Thursday by saying that Ehrlich is "flattered by all the attention. When a governor has no ideas or achievements of his own, he attacks others."
Fawell said Ehrlich still has set no firm date for announcing his intentions this year, though he continues to make speaking appearances and may make a decision "in a couple of weeks."
At the Columbia meeting, Russell said Democrats are facing a tough election year because of the unprecedented recession and the hard times that has brought.
"The last four years, we've had really bad times, a global economic crisis. People understand that, but they're not happy," Russell told the supportive group.
Despite what Russell called Ehrlich's "longest listening tour in the history of American politics," he said Democrats expect the former governor to run. When he does finally announce, Russell said, "we're going to go from 0 to 60 very fast."
Russell said political conditions can't help but entice Ehrlich into running.
" Maryland is a Democratic state, but this is one heck of a Republican year," Russell acknowledged. "Right now, incumbents are suffering and Democrats are suffering. Ehrlich is smart enough to know, Russell said "that this is a once in a lifetime environment."
Asked by a club member who the Republican nominee might be if Ehrlich doesn't run, Russell said he doesn't know, since Ehrlich's long hesitation has driven every prominent Republican out of the race. George W. Owings, III, a Democrat who served in Ehrlich's cabinet as veterans affairs secretary, has announced he will oppose O'Malley in the Democratic primary.
Russell also answered a question about Ehrlich's criticism of O'Malley for taking a weekend trip to Iraq to visit with Maryland National Guard troops while the General Assembly is in session. He said the governor left his Blackberry at home on that trip and was unaware of the comments until he got back.
"His reaction was, 'Is he (Ehrlich) crazy?' ... It was silly," Russell said about the comments, though "to some extent, it's the gift that keeps on giving," politically for O'Malley.
The governor intends to contrast his decisions and what O'Malley sees as Maryland's progress in important areas like public schools despite the recession against Ehrlich's record in office. The campaign will be based on "why Maryland is better off today than four years ago under Bob Ehrlich."
Russell said Democrats are also working on tactics, setting up "rapid response teams" to counter any Republican or tea party type conservative criticism. He said Democrats were weak in that area in contests won by Republicans last fall in Virginia and New Jersey.
"That's what we need to avoid here," Russell told the group. "Every one of you has a personal sphere to work," he said mentioning Facebook as a way to connect with voters. "This is the way you fight a national trend."
"In 2006 and 2008, those were wave years. We had everything going for us," Russell said. "Those times are gone."