It was no tongue slip, no mindless gaffe.
Known for his comfort behind microphones and finely tuned political instincts, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has refused to apologize or retreat from remarks on a radio show last week in which he called multiculturalism "bunk" and "crap."
Democratic rivals sense an opening. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley rebutted this week in Spanish, reminding an audience that all Americans descend from immigrants. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan says Ehrlich's words are fostering fear and resentment.
Political experts across the state are scratching their heads. They wonder whether Ehrlich was delivering a message intended to bolster his GOP base - downside be damned - or has made a misstep that could damage his reputation or ding his re-election prospects.
"It makes no sense to me. I just don't get it," said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "I see him getting absolutely no political mileage in a state that is predominantly Democratic. It appears to me that he's pretty much got his Republican base solidly wrapped up. In talking to a number of independents in my district, they were completely turned off by that."
Ehrlich aides say the governor was not making a political calculation last week when he defended Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's criticisms of non-English speakers working at McDonald's. The governor was repeating views, they said, that he expressed in speeches many times as a congressman first elected during the Republican landslide of 1994 and who became an acolyte of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The remarks are resonating in Maryland's immigrant communities, centered near Washington in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and also among African-Americans in Baltimore. But even as Maryland grows increasingly heterogeneous, the voices of urban minorities are not a deciding factor in statewide elections - a fact that Ehrlich learned well during his 2002 gubernatorial victory.
The diverse urban centers of Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's - long known as the Big 3 in state politics - constitute a shrinking proportion of state voters, notes Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In 1994, the three counties contained 45 percent of state voters, but the percentage dropped to 40.7 percent in 2002.
Schaller believes that what he calls a New Big Five is more important for a statewide candidate: the faster-growing, and much whiter, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Frederick counties. Ehrlich carried them all in 2002.
"Comments like this don't threaten to do damage among [Ehrlich's] minority voting base, which is small to begin with," Schaller said. "What they do is reaffirm the worries of moderate white voters, particularly women, who are often turned away by images and messages of a white male Republican Party."
"On the other hand, the damage is offset by gains he might make with suburban and exurban voters in those regions, especially men," Schaller said.
Ehrlich is suffering repercussions because he questioned the value of what Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University, calls a "God term."
"People support it, without knowing what it means," Vatz said. "If it is to mean anything that we have a conservative governor, they might want to change some of the rhetoric and pave the way for multiculturalism not to be worshipped as an unquestioned good."
The furor over language and ethnicity began a week ago during a state Board of Public Works meeting, which Schaefer opened with angry comments about the poor service he received at an Anne Arundel County McDonald's because of an employee's halting English.
Ehrlich missed the meeting because of a funeral, but he addressed the topic the next day during a WBAL-AM Radio program on which he appears regularly, using specialized equipment he had installed in his communications director's office and bantering casually with its host, Ron Smith.
"Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, that some folks are teaching in our college campuses and other places, you run into a problem," Ehrlich said.
Howls of protest
As minority groups howled in protest, Ehrlich refused to apologize - saying the words stand on their own but adding that he supports ethnic pride. The outrage continued yesterday, when nine Latino activists chanted pro-immigration slogans at the governor as he walked into the Old Courthouse in Towson on his way to a juvenile drug court graduation.
Ehrlich shook hands and spoke briefly with a few, saying he supports funding for English classes. "I'm an immigrant, too," he said, adding, "We celebrate ethnic diversity here."
The protesters didn't buy it. "How can you say one day 'multiculturalism is crap' and now you have some activists come from the immigrant community, and suddenly you're an immigrant too?" said Angelo Solera, a Baltimore Latino activist.
Also yesterday, Jorge Ribas, a Hispanic Republican activist who has clashed with Ehrlich over low numbers of Hispanic appointees in the administration, made public a letter he was sending to Ehrlich calling the remarks "bigoted" and "offensive to most Marylanders."
"Your hectoring Hispanics is reminiscent ... of Adolph Hitler who singled out Jews as the cause of all the problems, real and imagined, befallen Germany after World War I," Ribas wrote, also invoking McCarthyism, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and lynchings.
Ehrlich has invited criticism by revealing a side that many voters might not have seen before, said Ronald P. Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and author of a recent book on the rise of the conservative movement, White Nationalism, Black Interests.
'Back to his roots'
"You didn't hear him campaign like that. You knew he was a Republican, but you didn't hear that Newt Gingrich-type rhetoric," Walters said. "And now you get a sense that he is coming back to his roots."
Walters initially thought that Ehrlich was looking for "a way of building support and mobilizing the conservative base."
"But when you look at the buildup of the Hispanic population of the state, and combine it with the black population ... that is not the kind of ideology that tells us anything about Maryland's future."
As of July 2002, the Census estimated that of Maryland's 5.5 million residents, 239,830 were Asian and 256,510 were Hispanic - the latter number having doubled since 1990. About 28 percent of the population is black.
Ehrlich's rivals see an opportunity to make a distinction. On the same radio station Tuesday, O'Malley launched into a well-practiced explanation in Spanish - a language he had not studied since high school - on the value of immigrants.
"I think [O'Malley] wants to stay in the gubernatorial game," Vatz said. "And that motivates him to pick any issue that redounds to the detriment of the governor."
Duncan, another potential candidate for governor, said he has grappled with the problem of making immigrants feel welcome, especially after 9/11, as executive of a jurisdiction home to more foreign-born residents than any other in Maryland.
"I'm not looking at it from a political point of view, but from a societal point of view," Duncan said. "If you want a society where people reach out to each other, and include each other, you cannot think like that. If you make statements like 'multicultural crap,' you have no credibility when it comes to bringing people together. They won't trust you."
Sun staff writers Andrew A. Green and Eric Siegel contributed to this article.