Ehrlich looks good on TV, not on record

BRAVELY DEFYING all risk of severe autumnal chafing, Iemerged from the house last weekend to do my own yardwork and, as a Marylandtaxpayer and voter, I resent it deeply. Where was the governor of Maryland,Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.? Apparently, he had more important things to do. Rakingsome other citizen's yard, maybe, or cleaning some voter's bathroom. It saysso in the TV commercials. It's all Robert Ehrlich all the time now, brought toyou by. ...

Well, by you, actually.

There's the governor performing one household task after another, in a series of TV spots intended (a) to boost Maryland tourism, or (b) boost Ehrlich's popularity.

Pick one, based on your political persuasion, or your appreciation of the commercials' puckish sense of humor. Then ante up your share of the $2.7 million in taxpayer money that it's cost (so far) to keep these things appearing on TV screens.

"Do other governors go this far? I think not," Ehrlich says, as he performs a series of household chores. In one, he shows up in a guy's bathroom while the fellow's caulking tile. Ehrlich, wearing a Maryland golf shirt and holding a golf club, tells him, "Hi, Bob Ehrlich, governor of Maryland. It's a real shame seeing you waste a day off like this, caulking tile. Wouldn't you rather be playing golf at one of Maryland's nationally ranked courses?"

"Yeah, sure," says the guy.

"Then go. I'll finish up," says Ehrlich.

When last seen, Ehrlich's caulking a tub. A voice-over says, "Maryland. Seize the day off," and the governor mutters good-naturedly, "I wish I got a day off."

In another spot, Ehrlich shows up with his family as a husband and wife handle yardwork.

"Hi, Bob Ehrlich, governor of Maryland ... my wife Kendel ... our son Drew," Ehrlich says. "Doing yardwork on a day off is just wrong."

"We'll finish this," says the first lady of Maryland.

Got the picture? While the governor's good-naturedly taking care of things on the home front, Marylanders can get out and see the glories of their state.

There's nothing particularly new in politicians using the airwaves. Harry Hughes used to pitch vacations in Maryland (while Hughes himself was quietly vacationing in Delaware). William Donald Schaefer did his own TV pitches, and so did Parris Glendening and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Democrats, all of 'em - unlike the Republican Ehrlich.

But last week in Annapolis, Democratic Del. John Hurson convened a meeting of the House Health and Government Operations Committee to debate the ethics of a governor using taxpayer money for advertising that might be politically beneficial.

The governor's spokesman, Paul E. Schurick, struggling mightily to keep a straight face, said political gain was "not a consideration" when making the commercials.

Delegate Hurson, trying just as mightily to keep a straight face since he still remembers Democratic commercials, said he had his doubts about that.

The danger, said Hurson, is that Ehrlich's spots "crossed a line from nonpartisan public service announcements into personal partisan political advertising with taxpayer resources." Not to mention, this governor has also done TV spots for the Motor Vehicle Administration, thoroughbred horse racing, and energy-efficient homes.

But it's no secret that Democrats are also upset that, unlike the geeky Glendening, Ehrlich displays a telegenic schoolyard charm. And, unlike previous governors, it is argued, Ehrlich himself is the focal point of the spots - rather than Maryland tourist destinations.

All of this is worth debating, but misses a crucial point: The commercials play off no established Ehrlich image. All of a sudden, he's a hands-on kind of governor?

Also, this is a governor who cannot exactly point to a triumphant two years in office.

He has not been able to push his legislative centerpiece, slot machine gambling, past a reluctant General Assembly. In his first legislative session, he looked unprepared and overwhelmed and, at one point, tried to sneak phony financial figures past lawmakers and reporters. They caught it immediately.

Two months ago, reports described a state juvenile justice system in full catastrophe. When he ran for governor, Ehrlich made this one of his signal issues, promising to turn the system into a "child-first culture." But, when the scandal broke, Ehrlich quickly distanced himself, sending his troops out to say he wasn't aware of the problems.

Several weeks ago, it was revealed that his administration wanted to sell off environmentally sensitive St. Mary's County woodland to the politically connected builder Willard Hackerman. Ehrlich ducked all comment for days. When he finally responded to a flood of public criticism, he said repeatedly that he was unaware of the details of the deal.

Is there a pattern here? He doesn't know about land deals, doesn't know about juvenile justice, can't get his prized slot machines past the legislature.

No wonder.

This guy's been too busy caulking voters' bathrooms.

Too busy raking voters' yards.

Too busy starring in TV commercials showing that no problem is too small for him to handle - while the big problems slip right past him.

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