Ehrlich speaks of Md.'s problem as 'Annapolis'

Urges small businesses to lobby Assembly, dodges questions on candidacy

  • At the Pikesville Hilton, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fist-bumps Al Ackerman as Harriet Ackerman looks on. Erhlich spoke to the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce.
At the Pikesville Hilton, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
March 17, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not announced whether he'll seek a rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley this fall, but in an address Tuesday to Baltimore County business owners, he seemed to be shaping a potential campaign message.

The only Republican in the past four decades to lead the state, Ehrlich told the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce that Maryland has much to offer, from the Chesapeake Bay to its cultural institutions, "but there's one big problem. It's Annapolis."

Tapping into themes from the final months of his four years as governor, which concluded in January 2007, Ehrlich said the heavily Democratic General Assembly, through taxes and formula-driven spending increases, has made the state inhospitable to businesses.

"Maryland is a great state, but it sure makes it difficult to make a buck," he said.

Ehrlich didn't use the name of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley when addressing the receptive audience of about 50, and he insisted later that the talk was "not a campaign speech." He said his aim was to motivate business leaders to play a more active role in Annapolis.

Many lawmakers, Ehrlich said, don't understand or care about small businesses. As evidence, he cited the decision in 2007 to levy a tax on technology companies, which was quickly repealed, and Maryland's refusal to lower corporate income tax even as Virginia lawmakers considered eliminating it altogether.

He also criticized a law requiring higher levels of K-12 education spending each year, calling what's known as the Thornton formula "an unfunded mandate."

"There's a central theme here," he said. "Every one of these policy calls was a discretionary act. These are gratuitous discretionary acts."

He urged the audience to "hold politicians accountable for these votes," noting that he was talking about the General Assembly, not the governor's race. All 188 legislative seats are up for election this fall. "Do not support politicians who do not support you."

Ehrlich dodged questions about his potential candidacy but said he was "moving in a direction that at this time last year I wouldn't have predicted." His spokesman, Henry Fawell, said Ehrlich could announce as soon as the end of this month whether he will run against O'Malley.

In some ways, Ehrlich's campaign has started without him.

For months now, Democratic strategists have treated Ehrlich as if he's a candidate, even creating a parody Web site of his official one. And last week, Tom Russell, O'Malley's campaign manager, told a group of Howard County Democrats that the governor "is actually looking forward to" a race against Ehrlich, whom he called vulnerable. Russell's comments prompted Fawell to say Ehrlich was "flattered" by the early attention being paid to him.

Ehrlich has spent the past few months on what he called an "interactive listening tour" of the state. He said he was surprised by how many people urged him to run for U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's seat, an option that he told the Pikesville audience was "in the mix." He said Republicans felt emboldened by Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts special election to replace the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Democratic stalwart.

Later, Ehrlich emphasized that the purpose of his listening tour was to assess whether he should run for governor, and his aides waved off speculation about a Mikulski challenge.

A Rasmussen poll last month gives O'Malley a six-point advantage over Ehrlich. O'Malley's campaign says it has data showing the governor with a 10-point lead. O'Malley also has a significant cash advantage: According to January campaign reports, the most recent available, he had more than $5.7 million available, while Ehrlich had about $142,000.

After O'Malley defeated him in 2006, Ehrlich and his top advisers joined the law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge and Rice. Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, host a political Saturday radio show on WBAL.

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