The robocall scandal matters

Regarding the recent indictment of senior Bob Ehrlich aide Paul Schurick and political hired gun Julius Henson over last year's political robocall scandal, some believe prosecutors should have dropped the matter.

The campaign is over, they argue. Pursuing the operatives of a vanquished opponent smacks of sore winner syndrome.

While I understand these frustrations, I believe that the robocall stunt warrants appropriate scrutiny, and consequences, for four reasons.

•It was hypocritical. Back in 1998, Republicans complained bitterly about a campaign mailer accusing Ellen Sauerbrey of wanting to repeal the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s.

Republicans were right to be outraged by the mailing. That is why it is so difficult for me to understand why any Republican campaign would ever knowingly embrace similar tactics.

Both communications targeted Baltimore City and Prince George's County. Both made references sure to resonate with black voters (the mailer invoked the dark side of the civil rights struggle, while the robocall referenced the first black president). Both arrogantly assumed a fundamental lack of intelligence on the part of recipients.

And both communications sought to mislead. While the mailer's authors used fear as their instrument, the robocallers resorted to outright trickery.

Minimally, the next time a Democrat resorts to questionable tactics to mobilize black voters, memories of the robocall and the "Schurick doctrine" — a campaign document described by prosecutors as having the stated goal of confusing black voters — will make it difficult for Republicans to claim the moral high ground.

•It was undemocratic. One reason the petition drive to eliminate the state law allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at community colleges has been effective is that it involves fundamental issues of citizenship and the amenities that should be included therein.

Likewise, the robocalls are relevant because they crudely tampered with another basic concept: citizens' right to decide on their own whether to go to the polls.

Elections are won by candidates who mobilize their own political base while tamping down the enthusiasm of groups traditionally in the other camp. In 2002, Mr. Ehrlich's decision to name a black running mate contrasted with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Townsend's choice: a white former naval officer and recent Republican.

Polls at the time suggested that the juxtaposition of these two events mitigated some black voters' enthusiasm for Ms. Townsend's campaign. Rather than vote for Mr. Ehrlich, some elected not to vote at all.

Using messaging to dissuade your opponent's supporters is fair game. Using cheap Election Day stunts to trick people is the political equivalent of pass interference.

•It was pointless. In all my conversations with fellow politicos, people always ask, "What were they thinking?" This question still lacks a clear answer.

By October 2010, every indication was that even Mr. Ehrlich's own campaign aides knew the comeback attempt would fail. This makes the decision to field the call even more curious.

Even if all of the 112,000 call recipients had, impossibly, decided not to vote, Mr. Ehrlich still would have lost by more than twice his 2006 margin of defeat.

So in addition to being apparently illegal, arguably racist, and definitely unwise, the call achieved no discernible result other than generating attention among state prosecutors.

•It was reckless. One intriguing question pertains to what could have happened had Mr. Ehrlich won the election.

If Mr. Ehrlich succeeded, it would likely have been by a narrow margin, given Gov. Martin O'Malley's incumbency and Maryland's Democratic bent.

News of the robocalls — which would no more have helped Mr. Ehrlich win than they caused Mr. O'Malley to lose — would have delegitimized his hard-won victory.

The consequences would have been, at best, legislative paralysis in Annapolis or, at worst, years of litigation or a long and painful impeachment process waged by angry Democratic leaders.

Reliving the robocall debacle may be difficult for the GOP. But all Maryland politicos should accept it as a teachable moment.

Some things are just wrong, even in politics.

For those involved in this mess, the lesson to be learned is simpler: When a political operative who once called your candidate a "Nazi" asks for work, run.

Richard J. Cross III is a former press secretary and speechwriter to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He resides in Baltimore and blogs at His email is

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