Ehrlich's gamble on the city shows glimmer of greatness

Dan Rodricks

ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. of Arbutus is just the man to cure Maryland of its "pre-existing antagonism." No doctor can do it. O'Malley can't do it. Nor Sarbanes. Nor Mikulski. Nor Mfume. Not even Ripken. But the state's first Republican governor since Spiro T. Agnew could lead the way on regional big-think, and the sooner he realizes it the better. He has a choice - to be a statesman who unites modern Maryland across jurisdictional, economic, class and racial lines, or go down in history as "Bobby Slots."

In the boldest action he has taken as governor - and one of the smartest political moves we've seen him make - Ehrlich stepped to the plate Tuesday and offered the Baltimore school system a $42 million loan to help it through a potentially crippling budget crisis.

That was a remarkable development, given what this young, promising governor stands to gain among his base support (Republicans and conservative Democrats) by just saying no to a city that gave him fewer than 40,000 votes - one-third of what his Democratic opponent got - in the last election.

On Friday, Ehrlich at first sounded like one of those radio talk-show hosts who only speak of the city when developments provide an opportunity for harangue: "Is it good money after bad? Is it simply more state dollars wasted?"

By Tuesday, Ehrlich had changed his tune, offering to help the city while demanding fast answers on the present budgetary mess and safeguards against another one. He might have realized that the city's problems jeopardized, in real and perceived ways, the gains that have been made in student achievement since the state infused the chronically underfunded system with cash.

Not only did Ehrlich steal the show from his likely opponent in the next gubernatorial election, Martin O'Mayor, but he exhibited genuine leadership.

And candor.

Ehrlich acknowledged that his bailout of the city schools could cause some of his core constituency to howl, and it may fuel the anti-city sentiment that cynical Maryland politicians, back to Agnew's time, have used to advantage as population and power shifted to the suburbs.

"We are not immune to the pre-existing antagonism," Ehrlich said.

Oh yes, the P.E.A.

It's been festering here for a long time. Since after World War II, there has been a long, steady separation of the city from the ever-growing suburbs. The suburbs became wealthier, the city poorer. The suburbs became more congested; the city lost residents by the thousands every year. When the city asked the state for help in saving the schools after years of shameful underfunding and complacent leadership, the P.E.A. was there - suburbanites resented having to prop up a system that in no way touched their kids' lives.

And not just in this debate does the P.E.A. rears its ugly head. In 1996, when it was proposed that some public-housing residents be given the opportunity to move to white middle-class neighborhoods outside the city, Ehrlich was among political leaders who tried to derail the plan. It was not a pretty time.

But now we have an older, more compassionate Ehrlich essentially telling all of Maryland that the success of public school students in Baltimore is an important mission of the fourth-wealthiest state in the nation. We can't be laying off schoolteachers where they are needed most.

If a Democrat offered to advance the city $42 million, some of us would yawn, some of us would holler.

But here's a graduate of the Newt Gingrich School of Modern Conservatism sticking his neck out in an area the cynical would advise most young Republicans to avoid. What's to gain? Who needs the city? Ehrlich won the last election without it. He owes Baltimore nothing.

OK, maybe Ehrlich can't stiff 92,000 school kids. Maybe the state was the only source of bailout money.

Still, Ehrlich has a grand opportunity here, and he might even know it.

He is finally showing the way on something besides slot machines.

Maybe, if he stays on this track, he can make more of his many supporters see the light - that a stable and effective Baltimore public school system is not just about lifting the city, but the entire state.

You have to let go of "pre-existing antagonisms" - or be young enough not to be afflicted with them yet - to see that.

You have to think big. You have to embrace a regional view.

The public education system in Baltimore affects almost every aspect of life here. Fix it and maybe the kids coming out of it think better and make smart choices in life. Maybe Baltimore becomes more stable and appealing as a place to live. Maybe middle-class families think of moving back to the city, and young couples think of staying after their babies arrive.

In time, as Maryland's population grows, maybe suburban sprawl stops sprawling. We save open space. We cut down on those long, stressful commutes, and on air pollution. We essentially repopulate Baltimore and restore the quality of life here to its historic best.

That would be a splendid legacy for a Democratic mayor. But there's no reason it can't be a Republican governor's.
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