'Dirty tricks' allegations dot Ehrlich's past

Michael Olesker

ON THE DAY Official State Dirtball Joseph Steffen admitted spreading stories to humiliate Mayor Martin O'Malley and his family, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appeared on WBAL-TV news, where he was asked by reporter Dave Collins, "Have you known about this rumor?"

"No, absolutely not," said Ehrlich with a straight face.

Imagine the effort that must have taken. Imagine the faith in people's sheer childlike naivete to stand in front of a TV camera and say such words in an effort to distance yourself from this disgrace.

If the governor of Maryland did not hear the rumors about the mayor of Baltimore's alleged extramarital sex life, and the alleged breakup of his marriage, then Ehrlich might be the last living adult in the entire state not to have heard them.

In Annapolis taverns, they talk about it. In schools attended by O'Malley's children, they whisper about it. In Towson shopping malls and Ellicott City restaurants and Bel Air grocery stores and the beach at Ocean City people talk about it. My 80-year old mother has said, "The ladies at the senior citizen center keep asking about it." Outside City Hall this week, Councilman Robert Curran said, "I've had people approach me in the food store, the barbershop, on the street. I even had family members ask me if I know anything about it."

And Curran is related to the O'Malleys.

Who hasn't heard the rumors? Only the governor of Maryland, who says he never heard a word of it, and never imagined one of his longtime political operatives might have been behind such a thing -- not even this Steffen, who is proud to call himself the Prince of Darkness for all the damage he has inflicted over the years.

Is this the point where Ehrlich delivers another of his self-righteous speeches about bringing "respect" back to politics? Is this where he lectures us again about not bringing "Capitol Hill assassin politics" to Annapolis? By his own assertion, it's not the point where he's showing "respect" and issuing an apology to the O'Malleys.

For months, O'Malley has made it a point to have his wife with him in public. They looked affectionate and held each other's hands. It was a nice, Norman Rockwell-look of marital happiness. But it was painful, too.

Everybody knew why they had to do it -- and they knew that everybody knew.

And so, in spite of any genuine feeling the two O'Malleys have for each other, it became a kind of self-conscious charade in which everyone who had heard the rumor understood the public dance that was being performed.

One of the rumors had the O'Malleys' marriage over and the four kids living with her father, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

"You know where that came from?" Councilman Robert Curran said, moments before Wednesday's O'Malley news conference. "It came from weekends when the kids were staying with their grandparents. Can you imagine that? Kids stay with their grandparents, and they make it into a story about the parents getting divorced."

So we know now a source of many of these rumors. But the question remains: Who else took part? And who else had knowledge?

In e-mails given to The Washington Post, Steffen had written: "A lot of the reason that everyone knows [O'Malley's] history is because of what has gone on beneath the surface. ... A few folks put in a lot of effort to ensure the story got some real float."

A few folks?

Asked by the Post whether he was part of an organized effort to disseminate the rumors, Steffen said: "No comment."

Well, there is a history here. From his first political campaign, nearly two decades ago, when he ran for a seat in the House of Delegates, Ehrlich said he wanted to "make a new beginning for the Maryland Republican Party." Some beginning. For openers, he went after a vulnerable Republican incumbent, Del. Thomas W. Chamberlain, so harshly that Chamberlain accused Ehrlich of being "deliberately divisive" and using "dirty tricks."

"How long could you keep your job if you didn't show up for work 28 times?" an Ehrlich campaign brochure asked about Chamberlain. Supposedly, Chamberlain had missed that many days at work. Actually, he had missed that many votes, not days of work, and the 28 missed votes were accumulated over 12 years.

But that was just a warm-up act. By the time he ran for Congress, Ehrlich had Dirtball Steffen working for him. That's when salacious rumors were floated about Democratic opponent Gerry L. Brewster. Dirty tricks, Brewster called them. Two years later, when Ehrlich ran against former state Del. Connie DeJuliis, there were ugly rumors spread about her. Dirty tricks, DeJuliis said.

Two days ago, when Mayor O'Malley and his wife held their news conference outside City Hall, there was an odd juxtaposition. If you looked directly past the O'Malleys, a short block away were the lights of the Sweden Book Store and the Hustler Club and the rest of Baltimore's Block.

In a time of political pornography, the positioning seemed appropriate. Except that, compared with the likes of Steffen, regulars on The Block seem like church deacons. At least they don't go after a man's family.

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