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Political Animal

Ehrlich Agonistes

By Brian Morton | Posted 5/4/2005


Those damn Democrats! They won’t let my husband fund the state with slot machines. They won’t let Wal-Mart charge all its health-care expenses to the state and to the federal government. They won’t let my husband run the state government without the pesky interference of the newspapers. Wah!

In case you missed it, these are simply the sentiments of Maryland’s first lady, Kendel Ehrlich, who has expressed the belief that all of us who aren’t on board with her husband the governor’s plans should be “punished.” Behavior of Democrats during the past legislative session was “despicable,” she said. In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves, “Whoa.”

On Sunday, April 23, she told a meeting of Lower Shore Republicans in Ocean City that her husband “does the right thing when nobody is looking.” Well, knowing that he is not endangering the state when he makes a peanut-butter sandwich on a Sunday afternoon in the governor’s mansion is a relief.

Alas, what her husband really seems to want to do is turn Maryland into a microcosm of the political stalemate happening down I-95 in Washington. For instance, Gov. Robert Ehrlich went to a meeting of the state’s business leaders last Thursday, April 28, and told them they are not being as political as Tom DeLay has made K Street’s lobbying interests. Wagging a stack of what he called “anti-business bills,” Ehrlich told the members of Maryland Business for Responsive Government that he’s the only thing stopping the legislature from passing all sorts of scary tax increases. Of course, part of the problem is that same legislature is willing to balance the budget and compromise over the slot machines that Ehrlich has been so desperate to bring back to the state. Except, of course, that “compromise” for the governor means “do it my way.” So he is doing what he has done for the last three years: hit the circuit to complain that a primarily Democratic state won’t give him what he wants.

So you have to wonder if Ehrlich will be comfortable letting his No. 2 man, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, run for retiring U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes’ soon-to-be-open seat next year. Recall that Ehrlich himself won the governorship because he ran against a Democrat, then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who had never won an election on her own—a position that Steele will be in if he decides to run against a field that includes former congressman Kweisi Mfume and current U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, who have won a combined 15 congressional elections.

Granted, Mfume, the current Democratic front-runner, may be hurt by the recent reports that the former NAACP president allegedly showed favoritism toward women he dated and worked with at the civil rights organization—but Mfume also has represented a constituency as varied as Hampden, West Baltimore, and Catonsville. And Cardin brings a staid, hard-working low-key sensibility that attracts the same sort of voter that put Sarbanes in office for the last 35 years.

Samuel Johnson once said about a dog walking on his hind legs that it’s not how well the dog does the walking—it’s that he does it at all. Steele needs to recall that he follows in the footsteps of Townsend, who was also a “first” when it came to the office of lieutenant governor, and she at least ran for office on her own a few times first. If Steele steps out on his own, as national GOP interests want him to do, he will be trying to do something that each of his opponents has done many, many times. And despite the idea that politics is something that anyone can do, running a campaign is a very professional endeavor. Mfume has enlisted one of the top Democratic consultants in the country, Joe Trippi, who advised former Vermont governor Howard Dean in his mercurial presidential campaign, and Cardin will likely be bringing in heavy hitters of the same caliber.

Ehrlich, meanwhile, has to be concerned with the fact that in 2006 he will not be facing as laconic a challenger as he did in KKT. At present, most commentators speculate that Steele’s replacement on the ticket will be state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, who, despite already having a building named for her (a state education building in Baltimore), likewise never has won an election on her own.

So Bobby Smooth is doing what he does every spring after the legislature ends, hitting the hustings to browbeat business into ponying up money for Republicans and to complain that Democrats are anti-business. Coming after William Donald Schaefer, a man who has more buildings named after him than anyone in the state who still draws breath, and Parris Glendening, the “walking pander machine,” Ehrlich might think that such a suck-up comes off as preposterous.

But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. So who are we to get in the way of a man who knows what he does best? Plus, we critics get spanked by his wife. Wah!

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