Ehrlich's position on a 1996 legal settlement between the city and the American Civil Liberties Union is just part of the issue, critics say. Equally significant, they say, are the tactics Ehrlich and his political allies used to whip up opposition to the agreement and other housing proposals.
"It was very negative -- full of racial overtones and undertones and the general fear of blacks coming into the neighborhood," said Herbert H. Lindsey of the Baltimore County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "I think it is one of those issues that will kind of bubble up as we get into this campaign."
Ehrlich, the 2nd District congressman from Timonium, strongly denies that race had anything to do with his opposition to the settlement.
He was concerned, he said, that putting poor families in middle-class neighborhoods could hurt those areas. He also felt that the government should not give welfare recipients a free ride to the suburbs.
"It basically guaranteed a standard of living to some folks, where folks in the home next door had worked really hard to achieve the same standard of living," Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich, who is aggressively courting black voters, said he expects Democrats to use his stance to try to draw a wedge between him and African-Americans. He says he is ready for the attack and has no plans of changing his position.
"I do not want the American Civil Liberties Union running housing policy in my community, in my state and in my country," he said, noting that some Democrats have expressed similar concerns. "This is an issue we will be using in our campaign offensively, not defensively."
African-American leaders say Ehrlich's outspoken opposition to the settlement, which came two years after one of his political allies successfully derailed another federal housing program, reminded them of efforts to stop integration in the Deep South in the 1950s.
But other Democrats are urging Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the expected Democratic nominee, to refrain from attacking Ehrlich on the issue. These Democrats say it could backfire and divide the party by alienating white, middle-class suburban voters.
"In my community, the Democratic officeholders have worked very hard to preserve and protect neighborhoods. ... I have confidence the lieutenant governor understands this issue," said former Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat.
As part of the agreement, some public housing residents were given the option of moving into white middle-class neighborhoods. The federal government would give the city 1,300 rent-subsidy vouchers that the former tenants could use to move into areas with low concentrations of poverty and minorities in either the city or the suburbs.
Several prominent Democrats -- including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger -- also spoke out against the settlement, but Ehrlich played a leading role in trying to derail it.
Ehrlich, then in his first term, made his case in Washington by lashing out at former HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros. Back in his district, Ehrlich held public meetings on the issue, wrote opinion articles and held a televised debate with an ACLU attorney.
"In my view, suggesting that the only way to improve the lives of black Americans is to ship them off to live in white neighborhoods is an insult to blacks everywhere," Ehrlich wrote in The Sun in the spring of 1996.
His efforts against the settlement came two years after his friend and confidant, Baltimore County Councilman Louis L. DePazzo, was one of three men who spearheaded what some call a racially charged campaign against the Move to Opportunity program. MTO was a federal initiative to move a small number of city public housing tenants to the suburbs.
Public housing has been a lightning rod for Baltimore County voters, especially in the eastern part of the county, for about four decades. The debate goes back at least to 1964, when then-County Executive Spiro T. Agnew unsuccessfully tried to enact a urban renewal plan that some feared would lead to public housing.
Two years later, as Agnew ran for governor, county voters elected Dale Anderson, a conservative east-side Democrat who campaigned on a promise to keep public housing out of the county.
It was against that historical backdrop that the MTO issue flared in 1994 when DePazzo, then a Democratic member of the House of Delegates running for County Council, generated a backlash by suggesting that thousands of poor, black families were about to move into Dundalk and Essex.
In fact, the pilot program would have allowed 285 families to move to any suburban county, but only to those neighborhoods with a poverty level of 10 percent or lower. That excluded large parts of Dundalk and Essex.
But DePazzo -- who at the time suggested that public housing tenants would have to be taught how to bathe -- made the issue a rallying point for many working-class eastern Baltimore County residents.
The furor created such uproar that Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski quietly persuaded HUD in the spring of 1994 not to expand the MTO program. Mikulski, a Democrat who has endorsed Townsend, said at the time that the program had been mishandled by local agencies. She also had concerns that it could increase crime in the suburbs.
Ehrlich, who at the time was a state delegate running for Congress, strongly refutes any suggestions he used the MTO controversy as a campaign tactic.
But DePazzo, who broke ranks with his party to endorse Ehrlich that year, said recently that the congressman was involved with the anti-MTO campaign "from the very start."
"He was pretty active, he was pretty close," DePazzo said.
While the role Ehrlich took in the MTO debate remains in dispute, there is no doubt that Ehrlich seized on the city's settlement with the ACLU when it was announced in the fall of 1995.
He took to the floor of the House of Representatives and derided the settlement, and attempted in late 1995 to have the Republican-led Congress scuttle it. His efforts to have Congress stop it proved unsuccessful, but ultimately the issue would go before a federal judge for approval.
Just before that court ruling, Ehrlich and DePazzo, known for his outspokenness, joined in sponsoring a community meeting in Dundalk to discuss the issue.
The event drew more than 1,500 people who listened to speeches bashing the agreement. But like the MTO program, the housing vouchers couldn't be used in most of Dundalk.
"My feeling was Ehrlich was totally irresponsible that night, he tried to exploit the fears and prejudice," said the Rev. Chester Wickwire, a former chaplain at the who was booed at the rally when he spoke in favor of the settlement.
The federal judge signed off on the agreement during the summer of 1996 and it continues to be implemented today, albeit slowly.
Political analysts suspect the Townsend campaign will try to make an issue of Ehrlich's involvement if he begins making inroads with black voters, who are a key component to any successful statewide Democratic campaign.
In 1998, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's re-election campaign ran television ads that portrayed Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, some say unfairly, as an enemy of civil rights. The ads were credited with drawing a record number of black voters to the polls and propelling Glendening to victory.
"They are very, very skilled in twisting things around," said Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican consultant who was Sauerbrey's communications director.
Mike Morrill, a Townsend spokesman, said Townsend has no plans to raise the issue, but that could change later in the campaign. "We are talking about our record, and it is up to him to explain his record. And given some of the things he has done, there is a lot of explaining to do," Morrill said.
Frank E. Rourke, a former political science professor, said Ehrlich's stance on the issue could harm him in Baltimore and in Prince George's County, where some blacks have used government housing programs to move out of Washington.
But Rourke said attempts to use Ehrlich's views on housing against him could backfire by rallying the congressman's suburban Baltimore County base.
"I think he was representing the interests of his constituents at the time," said Daniel P. Henson, Baltimore's former housing commissioner who sparred with Ehrlich over the issue.
Ehrlich also notes that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, criticized the settlement in the fall of 2000 after some Northeast Baltimore residents, including some blacks, became enraged that public housing tenants were about to move into their middle-class neighborhood.
O'Malley said he did not recall Ehrlich's role in the debate. But he did agree that the settlement is flawed and suggested that Democrats steer clear of the issue.
"You can't force or order African-Americans to uproot themselves and move to a cornfield in the suburbs where they have no support network," O'Malley said. "The better goal is to move opportunity to the people and let integration take care of itself."