David Nitkin on state politics issues

ElectionsBob, Catonsville: Kristen Cox helps soften [Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.]'s image, but does she have the experience to be lieutenant governor?

Nitkin: The position of lieutenant governor in Maryland carries noofficial duties; lieutenant governors do as much or as little as thegovernor they work for allows. They are not elected on their own; they areselected as part of a ticket with the governor and must be a member of thesame party. Some lieutenant governors have had lots of political experience-- J. Joseph Curran Jr. was a respected state senator and chairman of theJudicial Proceedings Committee when Gov. Harry Hughes selected him as arunning mate in his re-election bid. Others are mainly symbolic picksdesigned to appeal to blocs of voters -- such as women or those from aparticular region. Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening,for example, tried to boost his wonkish image by choosing Kathleen KennedyTownsend as his running mate, hoping her storied family name would give himan edge. Kristen Cox is relatively young (age 36), has never held electedoffice and has been the head of a small cabinet-level agency for about twoyears. But whether she has the experience to be lieutenant governor may bea moot point: no lieutenant governor has ever risen to governor since themodern office was created in 1970.

Josh Friedman, Cockeysville: How can The Sun title a poll "Governor Running Stronger"when only 38 percent say they'll vote for him? That's a dismal number for anyincumbent with his name recognition.

Nitkin: The most recent polling for The Sun -- conducted July 6-10-- showed Mayor Martin O'Malley leading Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. 46percent to 38 percent among likely voters, a gap of 8 percentage points. InThe Sun's previous poll, in November 2005, the mayor led the governor 48percent to 33 percent, a gap of 15 percentage points. That trend line --Ehrlich closing the gap on O'Malley -- is significant, and worthy of a"Governor Running Stronger" headline.

The governor has a 55 percent job approval rating, a rating that hasstayed relatively consistent throughout his term. That's a very good numberfor an incumbent.

The poll shows he is running better now than last year. Thegovernor's approval rating is high, and our pollster, Keith Haller ofPotomac Inc., predicts a very close outcome in November.

John, Pikesville: Some MTA buses are displaying advertisementsthat prominently feature Governor Ehrlich, ostensibly to promote home ownership,yet appear to be blatant political ads paid for by the taxpayers. Aren'tthese ads violating some kind of law? Why haven't they been removed?

Nitkin: It's a common political practice for incumbent electedofficials to step up their visibility in election years -- frequently attaxpayer expense. There's a large gray area between what is legitimatepromotion of government programs and what is purely politicalself-promotion. Democrats in the General Assembly contend that Ehrlichhas frequently crossed the line; that's why this year, they passed a law(as part of the state budget) that prohibits the spending of state money ontelevision, newspaper and magazine advertisements (such as the governor'stourism commercials) between July and Jan. 10.

I'm not sure if the bus advertisements you cite are expressly prohibited under the law. The Ehrlichadministration has criticized the law, saying that past Democraticadministrations have spent similarly on advertising and promotions inelection years. They say they are being unfairly singled out. Democraticlawmakers counter that Ehrlich has taken the practice to a new level.

Steve Goodman, Ridgely: I heard a commentator on PBS saying that Martin O'Malley had"a remarkable record on education and a remarkable record on crime." Howcan anyone, even a blind partisan, say such a thing with a straight face?When O'Malley has to campaign statewide, how is he going to hide his dismalrecord as an administrator in his current position?

Nitkin: Crime and school statistics remain a weak spot for O'Malley. The mayor pledged when elected to bring murders to under 175a year, and the city has not hit the mark. Many city schools are dangerousand perform poorly on test scores. The mayor contends that the city issafer and schools are better under his leadership. His critics -- includingEhrlich -- say that progress elsewhere in the state has far eclipsed thatmade in Baltimore. The governor in recent days seems very willing to talkabout the mayor's record in Baltimore, and O'Malley will have to addressthe topic during the campaign and in debates.

Cate, Baltimore: Does anyone have a chance of unseating our embarrassment of acomptroller? Doesn't [William Donald] Schaefer have friends [or] family members who can explainit's time to retire before he loses any chance of a positive collectivememory on the part of state residents? I am so over our state being alaughingstock across the country.

Nitkin: The Sun poll showed Schaefer leads Anne ArundelCounty Executive Janet S. Owens 31 percent to 22 percent, with Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot at 11 percent in a three-way Democratic primary. Thirty sixpercent of primary voters are undecided. These results indicate to KeithHaller, our pollster, that Schaefer, 84, is vulnerable in this year'selection. Schaefer does have many close friends who have probably advisedhim of his risky prospects this year.

Edward Sills, Baltimore: Have you done polling in the 3rd Congressional District race?

Nitkin: I know many people would like to see poll numbers in this verycompetitive race to replace Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is running for U.S. Senate.Unfortunately, we don't have any. Sorry.

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