With Ehrlich in, it's deja vu

Maryland's 2010 gubernatorial race is shaping up to have a lot in common with 1950

April 01, 2010|By William J. Thompson

The decision of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to seek his old job has reminded this Maryland historian of an election from six decades ago. In 1950, former Baltimore mayor Theodore R. McKeldin defeated incumbent governor William Preston Lane Jr. in an election whose political climate bears some similarity to that in 2010.

First, there was voter anger. Governor Lane had pushed through the General Assembly the first sales tax in Maryland's history. State residents took out their frustration on Mr. Lane first by nearly nominating his Democratic Party primary rival George P. Mahoney -- whom the governor removed from the Maryland Racing Commission. Mr. Mahoney won the popular vote, but lost the unit vote -- a state version of the Electoral College, designed to perpetuate rural control of Maryland politics -- and the nomination went to Mr. Lane. Then in the general election, Mr. McKeldin, capitalizing on the "Pennies for Lane" anger of Maryland voters, handily defeated the governor by the largest margin in a gubernatorial race up to that time.

Second, there was anti-incumbent sentiment. Fueled in large part by fears about Communism, incumbents, particularly Democrats in the U.S. Senate, saddled with an increasingly unpopular President Harry S. Truman, were vulnerable. In Maryland, four-term Sen. Millard E. Tydings was under fire for downplaying accusations by colleague Joseph R. McCarthy of communist influence in the U.S. government, and he faced anger in Maryland from liberals and African-Americans unhappy over his past opposition to the New Deal and civil rights. With out-of-state tactical and financial assistance, including the not-so-hidden role of Mr. McCarthy, Mr. Tydings lost his bid for a fifth senate term to a little-known and lightly-regarded Baltimore attorney, Republican John Marshall Butler. Third, there was challenger visibility before the election. Mr. McKeldin, while still mayor, was defeated by Mr. Lane in 1946. After leaving office, Mr. McKeldin kept his visibility before Marylanders by criticizing his victorious rival Governor Lane over the next several years (in one quip, remarking that Ritchie Highway, named for Gov. Albert C. Ritchie, should be renamed "Sales Tax Lane").

He used the newspapers to stay in the spotlight, but significantly took advantage of radio and the new medium of television, which maximized Mr. McKeldin's talents as an orator. For example, Mr. McKeldin appeared regularly for a time in 10-minute commentaries on WBAL-TV. Mr. McKeldin also played an active role in Republican politics, particularly as a strong supporter of New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey's 1948 presidential bid.

In 2010, there is voter anger, fueled in part by the "tea party" movement and resentment against government, especially over taxes and health care reform. There is also an anti-incumbent sentiment in 2010, as Democrats, the party in power at the White House and in Congress, face tough races this fall; even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in political trouble. (In 1950, Senate Majority leader Scott Lucas, a Democrat from Illinois, lost re-election to Everett Dirksen, a future GOP leader in the Senate).

In addition, Mr. Ehrlich, like Mr. McKeldin, has kept a high profile before the voters while out of office, criticizing his successor and the legislature by writing op-eds, appearing on television and hosting his own radio program -- coincidentally, on WBAL-AM.

Mr. Ehrlich has also played an active role in state Republican politics as he helped oust longtime GOP congressman Wayne Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore by endorsing an opponent in the 2008 primary.

But there are also differences between 1950 and 2010. This year's Democratic incumbents, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, are stronger candidates than Mr. Lane and Mr. Tydings were 60 years ago. Generally, Maryland Democrats are unified in 2010, unlike 1950, when old-style political bosses like William Curran and James H. "Jack" Pollack in Baltimore opposed or broke with incumbent Governor Lane.

Mr. O'Malley has a Democratic primary challenger, George Owings, but not a classic party divider as Mr. Mahoney was for a generation in Maryland politics. Also, there is no McCarthy-type figure in the U.S. Senate today with the national following or temperament to bring down incumbent colleagues like Ms. Mikulski. Finally, Mr. O'Malley defeated Mr. Ehrlich, then the incumbent, four years ago, the first sitting governor to lose re-election since Mr. Lane in 1950. So Mr. O'Malley should surely be well-prepared to face another challenge from his opponent of four years earlier.

So while there are differences between 2010 and that election of 60 years ago, shades of 1950 are in evidence, and incumbents in Maryland (and nationally) should heed all warning signs -- or not -- at their peril.

William J. Thompson is a history instructor at Stevenson University and is writing a biography of Theodore R. McKeldin. His e-mail is wthompson@stevenson.edu.

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