O’Malley, Ehrlich vie for votes during visit to Columbia

Each gives own view of where Maryland, Howard are in recession

April 30, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. each attempted the political equivalent of spinning gold out of the straw of the recession during back-to-back visits to Columbia.

With the downturn hurting businesses across the state, Ehrlich concentrated on job losses and business difficulties during a visit Thursday to E&G Classics in East Columbia as a way to gain political advantage, while O'Malley sought to excite 150 Democrats at the Lakefront on Wednesday with recent job gains, the state's good schools and other achievements in the face of national economic adversity.

"That's not progress," Ehrlich said about the doubling of the state's unemployment rate and the tripling of unemployment insurance costs to businesses. "That's not how we measure progress."

The Republican said O'Malley has created an unfriendly business climate that led Northrop Grumman to relocate its corporate headquarters to Virginia rather than Maryland.

"Even in these difficult times," O'Malley told the cheering crowd, "we gave 45 percent more in school construction funding for Howard County." The Democrat said the state preserved three times more land in Howard County than previous administrations and kept college tuition from increasing for four straight years.

O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown visited the Lakefront on a sunny but chilly Wednesday afternoon to formally announce O'Malley's candidacy. His message during his statewide campaign launch tour was upbeat, bolstered by County Executive Ken Ulman and several Democratic legislators and County Council members.

"Maryland's unemployment rate is 20 percent below the national average," Brown said.

"We're ready to go to work for you in Howard County," Del. Elizabeth Bobo said.

The next day, Ehrlich visited an East Columbia auto accessory manufacturer whose owner said he's barely treading water after laying off more than half his work force, while facing a more than tripling of his unemployment insurance bill from the state.

Lynne Eash, whose family founded the company in Bladensburg in 1972, said he's down to a bare-bones 86 employees in two buildings from about 200 in 2006, before the recession. The firm makes replacement grills, simulated convertible tops, sun and moon roofs and other custom fittings for automobiles. These are all luxury items, he said, that customers can easily bypass during tough times.

"We're not talking about making any money. We're just talking about surviving," Eash said. The idea for the visit came from Del. Warren E. Miller, a western Howard Republican whose family is friendly with the Eashes, who also live in the county, Eash said.

O'Malley and Ehrlich are scheduled to visit Howard County again within the next two weeks and probably repeatedly after that because Howard is considered a swing county that can help make the difference between victory or defeat in November. In 2002, a victorious Ehrlich won Howard, but he lost it in 2006, when O'Malley took the state's top elective job.

"Our state has weathered this storm better than most," O'Malley told supporters. "Now more than ever, Marylanders need a governor who is on their side. I'm not trying to take Maryland back," he said, mocking a Republican slogan. "I'm running to move Maryland forward."

Without naming Ehrlich, O'Malley derided his predecessor's record, saying he created "the biggest spending increase ever proposed by a governor." The surplus Ehrlich left was "a fairy-tale surplus," he said, because it did not solve the state's structural deficit and was propped up by increases in fees, tolls and the state property tax.

Ehrlich and his allies say O'Malley and the Democratic-led General Assembly have handed out unemployment insurance too liberally, while extending the benefits to a point where the fund is badly strained.

Eash said he's faced with an unemployment insurance bill that has grown from $25,000 to $80,000, while he's manufacturing 3,000 chromed auto grills in April, compared with more than double that before the recession.

Ehrlich noted that much of one of the large warehouse buildings E&G occupies on McGaw Road is empty. Eash said he uses 30,000 square feet of the 175,000-square-foot space. Top Drawer, a furniture store and a 30-year resident of the space, closed about eight months ago, he said.

State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, who with Republican Dels. Miller and Gail H. Bates accompanied Ehrlich on a tour of the business, said the chances of attracting the Northrop Grumman headquarters to Maryland "would have been a whole lot different if we had Ehrlich back in 2006."

Republicans contend O'Malley has created an anti-business climate and perception about Maryland. Ehrlich said Maryland was never in serious contention, but was merely used as leverage by the firm.

Tom Russell, O'Malley's campaign manager, said Ehrlich's assertion is untrue.

"Clearly, we were in the running for it," he said. "I think Mr. Ehrlich's rhetoric is more rhetoric than reality."

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