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Vision lacking in Ehrlich’s comeback bid

His ‘unfinished business’ won’t be enough to sway voters

Dan Rodricks

April 22, 2010

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Bob Ehrlich, running for governor for a third time, wants to repeal the 1-cent sales tax increase that Martin O'Malley wrought, and he wants to finish some "unfinished business." This is what he said on my radio program Wednesday. Wondering if he had something significant or inspiring to offer — a little more so than a penny tax reprieve (not that there's anything wrong with that!) — I pressed him on the "unfinished business" part.

What exactly was he talking about?

"Expanding charter schools," he said. "I guess I'm the godfather of charter schools in Maryland. You know the very high-profile fights I conducted against the establishment in Baltimore City over the failing schools, the dysfunctional schools, and the failure to deliver constitutional rights. …"

"Emphasis on people with disabilities — that's one of my things, that's something I've always had a great interest in. There's nothing about that going on right now.

"Clearly, we've lost our business development reputation," he said. "We nearly doubled business confidence in the state … I think the sales tax — the most regressive tax, aimed at the poor. Tuition hikes at the community colleges have disproportionately hit the poor."

So, got that?

Unfinished business: more charter schools, services for people with disabilities, business development, reduce the sales tax; perhaps undo tuition increases at community colleges.

And then there were some "neat projects" that Mr. Ehrlich considers unfinished, too.

"The Corsica River project, you may not even have heard about," he said. "where we took a river, a dirty river in Maryland, and I got the feds and the locals and the state and all the agencies involved and all the best scientists, and I said, ‘Alright, I want a plan with regard to best practices and I want to give you the money and in two years I want to measure this river.' …

"We had some terrific Medicaid waivers, some real savings with regard to Medicaid … So a lot of unfinished business on things I really care about."

Medicaid waivers?

Pardon me, excuse me, but is this a message?

The Corsica River project?

All of this sounds good, bits and pieces of things Bob Ehrlich cares about, things of a certain importance that he might have been working on when Martin O'Malley came along and spoiled the fun.

But is it a vision? Is this going to inspire enough independents and cross-over Democrats to come out next fall and help Mr. Ehrlich topple Mr. O'Malley?

The Ehrlich campaign credo is, "New ideas, proven leadership."

Perhaps it was a failure on my part to ask Mr. Ehrlich pointedly what his "new ideas" are; we never got into that specifically. Most candidates have talking points. You ask them a question, they start to answer it, then take a sharp turn back to the talking points, back to the message.

It's what the professionals advise.

In the hour I spent with him Wednesday, I did not hear a developed message, unless Mr. Ehrlich thinks he can carry out a tea party-backed uprising by promising to take a penny off Maryland's sales tax. That doesn't sound like quite enough to do it.

Mr. Ehrlich is affable; he has energy and an instinct for what the late trial lawyer and Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams called "contest living." It obviously galls Mr. Ehrlich that he lost to Mr. O'Malley, and there's a schoolboy quality to the rivalry. The desire to win back the student council presidency is quite palpable.

But Mr. Ehrlich's personal ambition to spoil Mr. O'Malley's ride, while potentially a great entertainment, won't be enough for an upset. Not in Maryland. His only hope is to develop a stronger, clearer and more provocative message than what he's offered so far — and to tap into whatever anti-incumbent/anti-government sentiment he can find among Maryland's Republicans, independents and conservative Democrats. Bob Ehrlich's biggest challenge is presenting himself as an outsider, not the insider who was merely interrupted, with some unfinished business to finish.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM. E-mail: dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.