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The Caricature Issue

If Gov. Robert Ehrlich Isn't Who The Sun Says He Is, Then Who Is He?

Karen Caldicott

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 10/25/2006

You Really Oughta Vote: Part One of Two

The governor was aggrieved. "They made a story up out of whole cloth," he told a reporter in a waterfront Annapolis Starbucks, his voice rising. It was a cloudy morning in January 2005, and Robert Ehrlich had just left an hourlong live interview with WYPR radio host Marc Steiner, during which he trumpeted his low-tax economic policies and his unrelenting attack on trial lawyers and the victims of medical malpractice.But, through it all, Ehrlich could not stop bashing The Sun.

He continued the invective after the microphones were turned off and he and several staff members stopped for coffee. A reporter asked what, specifically, The Sun got wrong.

At the time, Ehrlich had recently ordered state officials not to speak to two Sun writers, columnist Michael Olesker and statehouse bureau chief David Nitkin. Their sins were many, the governor held, but the issue at hand was a series of stories The Sun published in the fall of 2004 detailing how state bureaucrats--at Ehrlich's behest--were about to sell 836 acres of protected land at cost to developer Willard Hackerman, netting Hackerman millions of dollars.

The Sun's reporting killed the deal and caused uproar in the state legislature. One measure of the issue's continuing resonance is a Question 1 on the Nov. 7 ballot, which if passed will require legislative approval before the state sells any property that was originally acquired for conservation.

But Ehrlich was not upset about the policy question, nor was he embarrassed that his administration had been caught trying to pay back a political supporter. He was personally offended.

"They made it seem like Willard Hackerman is an Ehrlich guy!" the governor protested, his voice rising while one of his aides ordered coffee in the background. "He's not my guy! He's given almost exclusively to Democrats!"

The Sun reported that Hackerman was a $10,000 contributor to the state Republican Party, which was true. "But he gave millions to the Democrats," Ehrlich insisted. (Current campaign finance records indicate Hackerman has given about $40,000 to Democrats since 1999.) Then The Sun tied Hackerman to Ehrlich through developer Howard S. Brown, a Hackerman business partner who staged a house party to raise $100,000 for the governor in November 2004.

In Starbucks, Ehrlich explained that Brown hosted the party as a friendly gesture after Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost the 2002 gubernatorial election. Ehrlich said that another of his supporters had chided Brown. "He said, if we win, you better throw us a party," Ehrlich said. "And so he did."

To Ehrlich's way of thinking, then, there was no reason to publish any stories about an unusual and secret deal to benefit a politically connected developer. Nor was there any reason to publish a later story linking the Hackerman arrangement to a policy change Ehrlich pushed to consider selling about 3,000 acres of "surplus" conservation land. Infamously, The Sun accidentally reversed the color coding on a front-page map of the state land, erroneously making it appear that all 450,000 state-owned acres could go for development instead of the 3,000 then under consideration.

Thus, Ehrlich claimed, the state's largest and most influential newspaper knowingly misled its readers by manufacturing a scandal out of routine business.

Since that day 23 months ago Ehrlich's feud with the state's largest newspaper has played out in court, in The Sun itself, and in media outlets across the country. Olesker resigned after being found using other reporters' words without attribution, Nitkin changed jobs (though he still reports ably on state politics), and state courts rebuked a Sun lawsuit seeking to force the governor to lift his "ban."

But even though the paper's editors and its "public editor," Paul Moore, have investigated claims of error and bias (correcting multiple minor mistakes and one major one), even though one of Ehrlich's own people whispered to this reporter more than a year ago that the ban "was never supposed to go this long," Gov. Robert Ehrlich's disdain for The Sun is the emotional keystone of his re-election campaign. It is the easy jibe at the end of public appearances, the can't-miss applause line to punctuate fundraising events.

It's an unusual focus for a self-described "moderate" incumbent governor. But it makes sense in the context of Ehrlich's first term, in which several signature initiatives--legalizing slot machines, limiting malpractice damage awards, instituting stronger penalties for gun crimes statewide--foundered amid partisan bickering in the Democrat-controlled state legislature.

For that reason, Ehrlich has tried to define himself not just by what he's done, but by who he says he is--a "blunt," straight-talking regular guy laboring mightily on behalf of the citizens despite attacks from the "left" and the "liberal press." Ehrlich, a football-playing, fight-night-loving, blue-collar guy from Arbutus who went on to graduate from Princeton, defines himself against Mayor Martin O'Malley's crime-savaged Baltimore, against The Sun, and against the "caricature" he frequently claims opponents--including The Sun--have unfairly drawn of him.

One of the things Ehrlich does to fight this so-called caricature is to spend money--on schools, on the arts, and on massive public works projects in heavily Democratic parts of the state. He calls these "caricature-breaking initiatives," presumably meaning that they go against his ostensible image as a Republican out of step and out of place at the head of a largely Democratic state. However, these attempts to change his image aren't very different from the election-year tactics his predecessors have used. Indeed, the outlay of state funds resembles another of Maryland's most popular political caricatures: the governor derided, even by The Sun, as "Parris Spendening."

 

Ehrlich did not grant a formal interview for this story, and his aides--harried by the pace of the campaign--did not deploy themselves enthusiastically on behalf of City Paper. But an examination of Ehrlich's campaign finance reports, press releases, and speeches during and after recent campaign events provides a picture of an administration working hard to include interests groups that are not traditionally Republican. It also reveals a governor who worked hard to keep his explicit election campaign promises, and managed to do so in many cases.

A search of news archives turns up 10 things Ehrlich "pledged" or "promised" in 2002 speeches. The governor unequivocally kept four of those promises and could make a case for three others:

  • Promise: Execute more people. Result: Success. Maryland's first execution in six years was carried out in June 2004, when the state put Steven Oken to death. On Dec. 5, 2005, Wesley Baker was put to death by lethal injection.
  • Promise: No new taxes. Result: Highly debatable. Ehrlich mostly held down property and income taxes but increased vehicle registration fees and instituted a "flush tax" to build more sewage treatment plants to clean the Chesapeake Bay. The cost of those is more than $50 per year for the average homeowner.
  • Promise: Keep his independent streak. Result: Can't argue with that.
  • Promise: Bring in legal slot machines to raise revenue. Result: Failed. This issue was Ehrlich's white whale. The legislature rejected his proposals and countered with slots bills Ehrlich could not live with, stalemating the initiative.
  • Promise: Help historically black colleges. Result: Did it. Ehrlich increased state funding for historically black colleges like Morgan State University by $255 million, most of it going to buildings and other capital improvements.
  • Promise: Spend $1.3 billion more for public schools under the "Thornton Commission" recommendations. Result: Arguable. Although Ehrlich boasts that he increased state funding to K-12 education by a record $4.5 billion this year, he is still underfunding the Baltimore City Public School System by about $136 million, according to the Thornton guidelines. Ehrlich says, and Attorney General Joseph Curran agrees, that the Baltimore funding is not required under Thornton.
  • Promise: Institute "Project Exile" statewide to impose a minimum five-year federal prison sentence for criminals who use guns. Result: Failed. Now little discussed outside of criminal-justice policy circles, Project Exile is a program to turn gun-related crimes into federal prison time. It requires close cooperation between local state's attorneys and federal prosecutors, plus money for more prosecutions. The state legislature killed Ehrlich's bill in 2003 by tying Exile to other gun-control measures. Ehrlich responded with a $1.7 million grant to Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy aimed at gun prosecutions.
  • Promise: Institute charter schools. Result: Partial success. Passed a compromise bill and oversaw the creation of some 23 charters throughout Maryland. The charter movement in Maryland is still tenuous, however, and the schools lack the independence charter advocates want.
  • Promise: Create a commission on faith-based management of health and human services. Result: He did. But the legislature refused to fund the commission, which appears to lack even a web site of its own.
  • Promise: Eliminate income tax on military pensions. Result: Done. In 2006, on the fourth try, Ehrlich pushed the tax break through the legislature. As a result, about 50,000 military retirees, whose average household incomes are nearly double the state average, will receive a tax break worth hundreds of dollars each year.

It is perhaps telling that, of Ehrlich's campaign promises four years ago, only his pledge to not raise taxes and his support of historically black colleges make the list of achievements he is campaigning on today. Other items on that list include huge increases in overall higher education and school construction funding, money for new roads and bridges, bringing the state budget back from a $4 billion projected deficit to a $2 billion surplus, and improving the state's business climate, especially for minority entrepreneurs.

But Ehrlich stresses that he achieved these successes despite a hostile legislature and a "dishonest" press. And that is how the word "caricature" works its way into almost every speech he makes on the campaign trail.

Addressing a national conference of artists in Baltimore on Sept. 28, Ehrlich makes sure the assembled crowd of 500--many from out of state--knows that he increased the state arts budget by 21 percent this year, the biggest increase ever.

"I'm a Republican,'" Ehrlich says in mock confession. "Guilty!" He recounts that after he was elected, some in the arts community were concerned, which is why he nominally increased arts funding in his first year in office despite budget pressure to slash it. "I knew the caricature that was being painted of me already before I even took office," he says.

But no matter how many times he invokes this caricature on the stump, it remains unclear exactly what Ehrlich means by the term, and his campaign did not respond to several e-mails in recent weeks asking for more detail. After a recent campaign event, Ehrlich's press secretary, Greg Massoni, denied ever hearing the governor use the word, although the governor, overhearing from the backseat of his car, corrected his friend. "I use that word all the time," he says. "I say we're breaking caricatures."

 

It's probably safe to say that Ehrlich considered last year's commentary on his Halloween lawn decorations by Sun columnist Laura Vozzella to be caricature. She playfully noted that the giant inflatable pumpkin, plastic skeleton, tombstones, and witch clawing up through the ground were "a little, well, Arbutus." It is unlikely that March's revelation, first made by The Washington Post, of Kendel Ehrlich's $55,000-a-year, part-time job producing an obscure anti-drug show for Comcast is seen by the Ehrlichs as anything less than a dirty trick, let alone "caricature."

This part of Ehrlich's message to the citizens of the state is getting through. It is now common chatter among right-leaning political observers that The Sun is unfair to Ehrlich. Even socialist A. Robert Kaufman, lately a Democratic primary candidate for U.S. Senate, tells a reporter "The Sun has been anti-Ehrlich."

"We don't cover the governor more aggressively or less aggressively than any other top elected official in Maryland," says Tim Franklin, The Sun's editor. "I find it ironic that he repeatedly questions the credibility of our coverage, then repeatedly quotes our coverage in his own campaign ads."

In fact, The Sun's coverage of Ehrlich has not been obviously more harsh or biased than its coverage of his predecessor, Parris Glendening. The paper has published stories routinely, as all major dailies do, about the doings of state government. And the paper has occasionally dug up embarrassing facts about the administration, as with the Hackerman story. But The Sun has often followed the Post on stories the governor has disliked. The piece about Kendel Ehrlich's job with Comcast, for example, came from the Post, which reported the job in the context of a former Comcast official whose specialty was hiring the relatives of politicians. The Sun first reported Kendel Ehrlich's salary, $55,000, in the context that she had been a Comcast attorney before she took the video production gig.

On its editorial page, The Sun has criticized Ehrlich for his policy regarding Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., his administration of the state's juvenile justice system, and his campaign fundraising at a country club that had hitherto never admitted an African-American member. Indeed, it has not often praised the governor. The big break between Ehrlich and The Sun came just before the 2002 election, after the paper published an editorial stating that he made a "calculated move" in naming as his running mate Michael Steele, an African-American whom Ehrlich's campaign paid a salary to run for the office, and that Steele "brings little to team but the color of his skin."

Ehrlich brought up that sore subject again at an Oct. 3 appearance at Towson University. "They insulted my lieutenant governor," he told Richard Vatz's class in political persuasion. "They said something that if I said it . . . my political career would be over." Because of that editorial, and The Sun's refusal to apologize for it, Ehrlich says he will not allow the paper's editorial board to interview him.

"There has not been a single positive sentence on The Sun's op-ed page about your administration for about a year," Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University and a longtime friend of Ehrlich's, repeatedly tells the governor Oct. 3. "What can you do about that problem?"

The question comes as Ehrlich is winding down his guest lecture in Vatz's class, a regular appearance he's made, according to Vatz, twice annually for the past 15 years.

The students advise the governor to ignore The Sun's editorial board, a tactic the governor acknowledges he endorses.

Ehrlich also makes frequent appearances on WBAL-AM talk radio to bypass reporters who might edit his quotes or check his facts. He tells the 80 or so assembled students, "When you're put in a position where you can be persuasive, where you can back up your opinion with facts, do it!"

Although he informs the students that "blunt works," and not to try to please every constituency, the governor also advises them never to answer a broad question such as, Are you pro-choice? Instead of giving a simple answer, Ehrlich says, "make your questioner define what he is trying to do." He tells the students not to get trapped "in the territory they're trying to define you in."

This strategy of questioning the motives of the questioner has propelled Republican politics for two generations, since Vice President (and former Maryland governor) Spiro T. Agnew dubbed the press "nattering nabobs of negativism." But Ehrlich insists he is not intolerant of criticism; he doesn't like people walking up to him and saying they love everything he's doing. Better, he tells Vatz' students, is when someone walks up and--for whatever reason--declares that Ehrlich has gotten them to register to vote.

"That's as good as it gets in politics," Ehrlich says. "When somebody says, `I don't like Republicans, and I have this caricature of you, but I listen to you, I respect where you come from'--that is as good as it gets in politics."

 

For Ehrlich, "caricature" is something liberal Democrats do to him, labeling him as a conservative Republican. But when Ehrlich talks about his "caricature-breaking" initiatives, he is usually talking about spending taxpayers' money on interest groups and in regions of the state that, it is implied, should not have expected any cash--because they're Democrats.

In a session with reporters after the Towson class, Ehrlich explicitly ties government largess to the expectation of votes from Prince George's County. The heavily Democratic county is much more receptive than four years ago, he says, because "we get to run on my record." Prince George's was an Ehrlich priority from the beginning of his administration. By the end of 2004 he had lavished more than $250 million for road and "quality of life" projects there, according to a press release from his office. "People are responding to it," he says after Vatz's class. "It has dictated more events on my schedule, yes."

Asked if he expects to get more than 22 percent of the county's vote (the amount he won in 2002), Ehrlich predicts a "substantial increase." He goes on to say that he is expecting "a major uptick in our support from the Jewish community" in Montgomery County because of the "caricature-breaking things we've done," including textbooks and "bricks and mortar projects." He does not mention this example: Ehrlich reportedly directed a $100,000 federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security to a single Jewish day school in Montgomery County, citing as justification a report of a Saudi man videotaping a Jewish school in Baltimore City.

Although such symbolic largess is soon forgotten by all but their direct beneficiaries, it's a style of politics common to members of the U.S. House of Representatives, where Ehrlich served for eight years. It's less often the province of governors, but it worked for former governor William Donald Schaefer for decades and seldom caused him embarrassment in the press.

The largest single government project in both counties (and the rest of the state) is the Intercounty Connector (ICC), an 18-mile east-west highway linking Montgomery and Prince George's that is projected to cost at least $2.4 billion to build. On the drawing board for 50 years and set aside under Glendening, in part because of new thinking about the efficacy of using highway construction to cut congestion, the ICC is still controversial to environmental and planning groups. Ehrlich brushes protests aside, though, claiming that support for the ICC has "never been a partisan issue. It's just a win for the people."

Those words come after an official groundbreaking for the ICC, staged Oct. 12 on a desolate access road in Prince George's County. It was, ICC opponents note, the third ceremonial ICC groundbreaking in four months.

Ehrlich seems to believe that his steadfast support of the massive road project, and skillful politicking in bringing it to fruition, will count for a lot among the ordinary voters in the heavily Democratic region. But the governor's hopes may be misplaced.

"It might have some small effect," says Jerry Garson of Citizens for Better Potomac Roads, a pro-ICC group, but the real battle over the road was fought four years ago, when ICC opponents "mostly lost" their elections. Since then, Garson says, even supporters have been growing impatient sitting in gridlocked traffic. The state, Garson says, "could have done these contracts on a little faster basis."

Then there's the inevitable story of who benefits while ordinary people face the loss of their homes. On Sept. 26, The Washington Post published a well-researched article about Kingdon Gould III, a multimillionaire developer whose planned 2,000-acre mini-city in Prince George's County, Konterra, bisects the ICC's route. The new highway will enable Gould to earn millions with his development, and, of course, Gould has rained money on Ehrlich's campaigns through myriad corporate alter egos, in a perfectly legal sidestep around the state's $4,000-per-person campaign finance limit. The Post counted $50,500 in contributions to Ehrlich since 1999 from Gould's corporations.

Ehrlich told the Post that the campaign money was not intended to exert influence but to lend support to a friend of the family. "Kendel lived with Susan Gould on their property as a bachelorette, and they've been supportive of my campaign all the way along," the Post quotes Ehrlich.

At the groundbreaking, the governor dismisses the article as inconsequential. "It was a one-day, it was a hit piece, who knows why," he tells a supporter, adding that since it ran "no one ever asked me about it."

The new road will provide major contracting opportunities and thousands of jobs--14,000 according to an economic estimate the governor uses. The $2.4 billion estimated cost will be spread among federal grants, the state transportation trust fund, toll income ($7 a day, round trip, according to opponents), and other federal funds. Ehrlich insists that his many other projects around the state--including both road projects and mass transit--will be built as well: the legacy of Ehrlich's excellent fiscal stewardship.

 

Ehrlich can afford to spread money around in large measure because Maryland's economy has boomed on his watch, with state tax revenue increasing from $9.6 billion during his first year in office to an estimated $12.3 billion in fiscal 2007, a 28 percent increase. The overall state budget, meanwhile, ballooned as impressively--to $29 billion in fiscal 2007, a 29 percent increase over Ehrlich's fiscal 2004 budget. But while the governor takes credit for his fiscal prowess and "pro-business" policies, his administration did not cause the growth that so improved the state's bottom line. George W. Bush's administration did.

Government employment figures suggest that Maryland is nearly unique among states in its dependence on federal government spending, particularly contract spending, which has increased by $174 billion per year since 2000, according to a June report compiled by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). "The fastest growing part of the discretionary budget over the last five years has been spending on federal contracts," the report, titled "Dollars, Not Sense," says. "Between 2000 and 2005, procurement spending rose by 86%."

Most of the money went to the most prominent federal contractors, with the largest 20 contractors receiving more than one-third of the contracts, the Waxman report says. As of 2003, 20 of the top 50 federal contractors were based either in Northern Virginia or Maryland. In 2005, according to the Waxman report, Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin alone had more than 12,000 federal contracts and received more than $25 billion dollars from federal taxpayers.

"I have a general sense that Maryland's economy does depend on federal contracts," says Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who teaches a seminar on government contracting. "Particularly since 9/11 and the Iraq war, there has been a sharp upward trend in defense spending and homeland security spending. . . . And Maryland gets a share of that because of its proximity to Washington."

Federal spending drives the "Washington-area economy--[the federal government is] one-third of gross regional product," says Stephen Fuller, an economist and professor of public policy at George Mason University, though he adds, "[It is] important but much less so in the Baltimore region and even less important elsewhere in the state."

As the state's tax base grew, Ehrlich applied billions in new spending to schools, roads, and other big-ticket, job-creating projects, often concentrating them in places he hopes to win more votes.

Soon after taking office, Ehrlich created government jobs for his supporters and dispatched Joseph Steffen to get rid of state employees who weren't sufficiently enthusiastic about the new governor. But Ehrlich also increased annual governments spending on contractors has increased by $1.5 billion. This year the "contractual services" budget line accounts for $8.4 billion--an increase of 22 percent over fiscal 2004.

Indeed, Ehrlich brags about his administration's increase in contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses, claiming in campaign materials that "Participation among women- and minority-owned businesses in state contracts rose by nearly 50 percent from 2003."

Not every contract can be deemed a success, however. Lanham-based Automated Business Systems and Services (ABSS), for example, lost a state subcontract this year after it ran into trouble paying its workers, who helped administer the EZ-Pass toll system and process child-support payments. ABSS's principals, however, had no problem making political donations--including at least $2,000 to Ehrlich's campaign. In late 2004 Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan hired a former ABSS official, Debra F. Carter, for a position with the state Department of Transportation.

In 2005, the Maryland Stadium Authority paid a Baltimore attorney more than $111,000--as much as $685 per hour--to study the feasibility of suing Major League Baseball over the then-pending Washington Nationals deal, according to The Washington Post. Although no suit was filed, the lawyer, William H. "Billy" Murphy, has emerged as a fiery Ehrlich partisan, attacking Mayor O'Malley's controversial police tactics as part of Ehrlich's appeal to the African-American community.

Murphy has said his no-bid contract, which Attorney General Curran called improper, had no connection to his support for Ehrlich. Murphy declined to answer questions posed by City Paper, including whether his decision to attack the mayor was influenced by the O'Malley administration's recent refusal to grant his former wife, BettyJean Murphy, more development contracts until she repays more than $1 million she reaped in a sweetheart deal made 11 years ago.

The former Mrs. Murphy, whose business office is in Billy Murphy's building, runs Savannah Development Corp., a longtime developer of taxpayer-funded housing projects in Baltimore. The company was chosen last winter to develop housing in the city's Woodberry neighborhood, but the city put that deal on ice while it tries to get Savannah to repay the city $350,000 in federal funds it spent to buy 10 W. Chase St. for Savannah in 1995--plus the estimated $900,000 her company earned when it sold the unrenovated building early this year. A spokesman for Savannah says that no deal has been reached.

Murphy may be Ehrlich's most prominent Democratic supporter in the African-American community, but the governor's support of minority business enterprises (MBEs) has helped other Ehrlich supporters--even Vatz, who is white and usually takes conservative positions on political issues.

"I do favor" minority business set-asides, Vatz says. "And let me announce my bias. My wife is the head of a minority-business enterprise, and in my observation, without some legal intercession, you cannot guarantee" equal treatment.

In 2003, Joanne Vatz founded an information technology consultancy called Cirdan Group. Joanne Vatz is white, but Maryland categorizes white women as a minority for the purpose of contract set-asides. Vatz registered her company as an MBE with the state Department of Transportation, and it soon had contracts with Maryland State Police, the Maryland Department of Budget and Management, and the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. Cirdan Group's lowest published hourly labor rate is $71.19, although as "senior subject matter expert," Cirdan charges more than $200 per hour. The company also employs the Vatzes' daughter Shaina Vatz, who is a professional opera singer and recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During the summer of 2002, the Ehrlich campaign paid Shaina Vatz a part-time salary of about $204 per week, according to campaign expenditure reports. On May 4, 2004--more than a year after Ehrlich won the election--the campaign sent a $1,000 check to Shaina Vatz's Chapel Hill address.

Joanne Vatz says she isn't sure about her daughter's campaign pay and takes a message for Shaina, which goes unreturned as of press time. Joanne Vatz says that her husband's friendship with the governor hasn't helped her business at all. "The procurement process is a very regulated and regimented process," she says. "The governor doesn't get involved with that kind of thing."

"My wife and daughter are brilliant," Richard Vatz says, adding, of his wife, "God knows, she makes more than I do."

 

Payback politics appear to be a way of life in Annapolis, and Ehrlich's attempts to position himself as above it (a 2002 television ad called Glendening's Democratic administration "corrupt") is only natural. But his petulant responses to those rare episodes where a little daylight is shed on the practice--as in The Sun's reporting on the Hackerman land deal--appear unlikely to resonate much outside a core group of staunch partisans. Rather than the statesman, above the slick mechanics of legislation and political infighting, Ehrlich has emerged as an aggrieved victim, the underdog fighting the shadowy, unaccountable, powerful institutions of corrupt "liberalism."

Ehrlich's beef is not so much with The Sun's editorial board, which can base its opinions on facts or suppositions and has little influence outside of a dwindling circle of aging readers. His real enemy is journalism--reporting that asks impertinent questions and digs out inconvenient facts. For example, take Sun reporter Tom Pelton's Sept. 11 story, based on official documents, explaining how Ehrlich's centerpiece of environmental legislation, the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act, is enabling not so much a "bay cleanup" as more sprawl. That's not the kind of thing the governor tells the listeners of WBAL radio.

While an outsider might look askance at the idea of an Ehrlich operative telling a rich developer that he "better" stage a $100,000 fundraiser for the governor, to Ehrlich this is just the way things get done. The money comes in, the money goes out, friends are employed, projects get built--a "win for the people" and for the family and loyal friends of Robert Ehrlich.

As an Oct. 12 fashion show/fundraiser at the Baltimore Convention Center winds down, Ehrlich is joined on the long runway by his wife, his two sons, his lieutenant governor nominee Kristen Cox, and Anne McCarthy, a political newcomer running for comptroller against Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery County).

Franchot is one of Ehrlich's most persistent and enterprising critics. It was Franchot, for instance, who brought to light the broader land sales policy behind the Hackerman deal, and in September defeated William Donald Schaefer in a stunning primary upset. Even if Ehrlich wins re-election, a Franchot victory would leave the governor with no political partner on the Board of Public Works to approve important state contracts without scrutiny or discussion. "This is a really important job!" Ehrlich implores the crowd. "Please, please, please! Give me Anne McCarthy as the next comptroller of Maryland."

Ehrlich then introduces Cox to the crowd, saying "you may have heard of her, she's been in the news lately." Actually it was the governor who made news by admitting that he had picked Cox in part because she is blind, and wondering aloud, on Washington Post radio, whether her other skills alone would have led him to nominate her. Again, The Sun's story on the subject irritated the governor, who accused an unspecified "they" of insulting Cox the way The Sun insulted Steele.

Ehrlich makes the case for Cox's qualifications to be lieutenant governor, throws in a pitch for Republican attorney general candidate Scott Rolle, and then, for mysterious reasons of his own, reminds the crowd of his wife's job with Comcast, the huge cable television company that currently pays her $55,000 annually to produce a little-watched anti-drug show.

"Kendel is a unique model for first ladies," the governor exclaims proudly. "She was a public defender when we met. When we got married she became a prosecutor, so figure that out. She's a professional. It's OK to have a part-time job. Sun papers, get over it!"

The crowd cheers. Ehrlich basks. He digs in one final time, recalling last year's Vozzella column about the first family's Halloween lawn decorations:

"I have a message to the Sun papers," the governor of Maryland tells 1,000 applauding women and more than 100 men at the Baltimore Convention Center. "The pumpkin is back--and it's bigger than ever!"

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