Grasmick sees opportunity for education in Ehrlich run

Michael Olesker

NANCY GRASMICK is Our Lady of the Public Schools, the saintly state superintendent overseeing thousands of classrooms of the young and the academically restless. Now -- maybe -- she will take on a task nearly as daunting: trying to get Robert Ehrlich elected governor of Maryland.

Over the weekend, The Sun's David Nitkin revealed that Ehrlich, the Republican, has reached across party lines and invited Grasmick, a lifelong Democrat, to consider being his running mate. This is a potential coup. It welcomes any Democratic voter wishing to cross over. It offers gender balance. And it softens the lingering right-wing image of Ehrlich.

Will Grasmick take the offer? She isn't sure. She's had similar political offers in the past (from Democrats) but always turned them down. She's passed up job offers from foundations and corporations. Her concerns were strictly the schools. But the schools do not exist in a world of their own. They connect to issues of race, of class, of economics, of kids marching into an uncertain future.

"It's extremely flattering to be asked," Grasmick, 63, was saying over the weekend. Though Ehrlich called Grasmick one of three candidates on his list -- narrowed from an initial 30, he said -- one source said the job is Grasmick's if she chooses to take it.

"I'm struggling with it," Grasmick said. She knows Ehrlich's mixed record on schools, which includes votes against increased public school funding, against Head Start, against the school lunch program. In the most headstrong and reckless days of the Newt Gingrich revolt, Ehrlich went along with the congressional bully boys trying to eliminate the Department of Education.

"We have a huge achievement gap within this state," Grasmick said. "And it's based on race, ethnicity, circumstances of poverty. We can't afford to write off any children. And, for me personally, being lieutenant governor might be the way to put education in a premier position of public concern."

How does this kind of passion square with Ehrlich's voting history?

"I think my record is one of the appeals I have for him," she said. "I think it's his own recognition that he hasn't always made the best decisions regarding his voting record on education. If there's a recognition that in the past he hasn't been strong, you bring in somebody who's extremely strong."

As state school superintendent, Grasmick has lobbied hard for increased school funding. She's done this in a strained atmosphere. She has little respect for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. She's worked well, and agreed philosophically, with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who would now be her opponent in a State House race. Though the Glendening administration has spent generously on schools, most of the money, Grasmick says, has gone for bricks and mortar. She wants more for teachers and equipment.

And she has faced a General Assembly that understands the need for school money but also knows the grip of a tight budget.

Which brings us to slot machines.

In the current call for $1.3 billion in new school spending, everybody wonders how the money would be raised. The short answer is: slot machines at Maryland racetracks. In Delaware and West Virginia, slots have not only brought new life to thoroughbred racing, but helped pour huge money into the schools.

In Maryland, though, we have Glendening, the governor who sanctimoniously declared "no gambling," thus blithely ignoring the state lottery -- to say nothing of campaign money slipped to him, quite illegally, by racetrack interests.

In the current campaign, Robert Ehrlich says he backs slots; Kathleen Kennedy Townsend says she does not.

"My feeling," Nancy Grasmick said, "is that we need slots."

Consider, this is the state school superintendent issuing the endorsement.

"To say we don't want gambling is silly," Grasmick said. "We already have the lottery, we have horse racing. To put slot machine gambling at places where we already have gambling -- where people go specifically to gamble -- is perfectly acceptable.

"We're surrounded by states that are taking in millions with slots. Yes, it ought to be controlled. But if we guarantee that revenue from the slots would be earmarked for education, then I'm for it. And I don't know why Kathleen is against them. It ties her to [Glendening], where she needs to make a break."

If Grasmick becomes Ehrlich's running mate, she will make her own break -- with the Democratic Party.

"I registered as a Democrat many years ago," she said, "though I've never been actively involved with the party. I've always voted for the candidate, not the party."

Deadline for selecting a running mate is July 1.
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