The un-gubernatorial campaign

Our view: Republicans, Democrats squabble over things that don't matter

May 25, 2010

Perhaps it was inevitable in the rematch between sworn enemies Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., but this year's gubernatorial race has devolved quickly into petty bickering that has nothing to do with the issues facing the state. To date, we've got Democrats complaining that Mr. Ehrlich is getting unreported, in-kind contributions from his two employers, WBAL radio and Womble, Carlyle Sandridge & Rice; and Republicans complaining about one known case of an O'Malley e-mail fundraising solicitation landing in a state employee's work inbox, and an incident in which Baltimore County code enforcement officials cited a homeowner for an oversized Ehrlich sign. It's all much ado about nothing.

The Maryland attorney general's office this week shot down the Democratic Party's theory that Mr. Ehrlich's continued broadcast of his radio show on WBAL-AM amounted to an in-kind campaign contribution from the station. The opinion held that policing the radio show that way would run afoul of First Amendment protections on political speech and noted that when it comes to media law, "fairness, balance, or lack of bias are not requirements."

Indeed, the question of Mr. Ehrlich's show is entirely one of media ethics, not law. WBAL has offered Mr. O'Malley equal time, but it would still not amount to equal treatment, since Mr. Ehrlich is a paid employee of the station. Imagine if The Sun hired Mr. O'Malley as a paid staff columnist, gave him his own web page on our site, a e-mail address and a blog, and then offered Mr. Ehrlich the chance to write unpaid op-eds. Legal? Sure. Fair? No.

Similarly, it's hard to imagine the state finding that Womble is providing reportable, in-kind contributions to the Ehrlich campaign. The Democrats' complaint specifically questions whether Henry Fawell, who was Mr. Ehrlich's spokesman when he was governor, was continuing to perform that role for the nascent Ehrlich campaign while on the clock at the law firm. The complaint centers on the time before Mr. Ehrlich actually declared as a candidate, and Mr. Fawell's role at the time essentially amounted to giving vague responses to reporters who called to ask if or when Mr. Ehrlich would get into the race. Let's assume he ate lunch at his desk those days.

Now that Mr. Ehrlich is a declared candidate, he has a bona fide campaign headquarters and a paid campaign spokesman who doesn't work for Womble and never has. And Mr. Fawell is now working part time for the law firm and part time for the campaign and plans to transition out of the firm entirely within the next few weeks.

It's fair to question the wisdom of a law firm seeking to build a practice in this state having such close ties to a political candidate, but that's a matter of business strategy, not campaign finance.

On the other side of the ledger is the Maryland Republican Party's complaint that Governor O'Malley is "strong-arming" state employees into donating to his campaign. As evidence, the party has produced one e-mail fundraising solicitation sent to a state employee's work address. It would be problematic if that was considered prima facie evidence of an illegal solicitation, since anyone who wants to can sign up to get campaign e-mails at any address they choose. A state worker who dislikes the governor could easily entrap him in such a violation by joining the distribution list.

If the governor were using state resources to find the e-mail addresses of the 70,000-plus state workers and sent them unwelcome solicitations, that would be a problem. But if that were the case, we're guessing the state GOP could produce more than one example.

Finally, there's the case of Baltimore County's enforcement of its sign ordinances. A commercial property owner in Essex was given a citation for displaying an Ehrlich sign because Mr. Ehrlich had not formally registered as a candidate with the board of elections. The law makes no such distinction in whether a campaign sign is allowed, and the county, correctly, rescinded the violation. But in another instance, code enforcement officials responding to a complaint cited Dulaney Valley Road resident Steve Kolbe for a 32-square-foot Ehrlich sign in his yard, four times the legal limit for such signs on residential property. Mr. Kolbe claims he's being singled out because he's an Ehrlich supporter and that his free speech rights are being violated.

Nonsense. The county has good reason to set some limits on the size of campaign signs on residential property. Should the First Amendment give you the right to erect a billboard in support of a candidate on your front lawn? The contention that Mr. Kolbe is being singled out unfairly because code enforcement officials were responding to an anonymous complaint in his case also doesn't hold up. County code enforcement has long been complaint-based and thus somewhat arbitrary. And if Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. wants to go after Mr. Ehrlich, he proved in the 2006 election that he has more effective and straightforward ways of doing it than sending out the sign police.

All these complaints may fire up the fierce partisans on both sides, but the voters who are actually trying to decide who will do a better job running this state probably don't care at all. Let's move on.

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