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Democrats targeting 2nd District Republican Ehrlich is seen vulnerable in Gingrich backlash; 'Best opportunity' in Md.; Freshman's backers say his conservatism in line with voters'

As Democrats nationally dream of taking back control of Congress, party activists in Maryland want to do their part by recapturing the 2nd District seat from the GOP.

Hoping to capitalize on the backlash against House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Democrats at the national and state levels want to knock out freshman Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and replace the conservative Republican with the more liberal Connie Galiazzo DeJuliis.

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This is not to say that the Democrats have conceded the three other congressional seats held by Republicans in Maryland. But they have targeted Ehrlich because they believe he is vulnerable as a first-termer and offers the best shot to tip the 4-4 balance of the eight-person delegation to the Democrats.

"This is absolutely a priority race for us," said Tricia Primrose, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The 2nd District presents our best opportunity to pick up a seat in Maryland."

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State GOP officials, however, know the popularity and power of Ehrlich, a fast-rising star in the party, and say they are not particularly concerned.

"Oh, I think Bobby has the race," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, the state party chairwoman. "I think he'll come through fine, but you never take anything for granted."

More cautious was former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who took the seat from the Democrats in 1984 and held off all comers in a district where Republicans are outnumbered 2-to-1.

Bentley said she has some concern over the AFL-CIO's $35 million nationwide "political education" campaign to oust Republicans from Congress with radio ads, phone banks and literature drops. In Maryland, ads assailing Ehrlich's record already have started.

"As with any of the races that labor has targeted, one has to be very aware of it -- and watch your backside," she said.

Ehrlich, who succeeded Bentley, won the seat two years ago with 63 percent of the vote in the 2nd District, which includes eastern Baltimore County, Harford County and a small part of northern Anne Arundel County.

So far, the race has been quiet, as both sides put their organizations together, raise money and gear up for what promises to be a heated battle before the Nov. 5 election.

But in the wake of a sleepy March primary, the campaign rhetoric began to pick up last week.

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Democrats charged that Ehrlich is "marching in lock step" with Gingrich, with DeJuliis saying the congressman has betrayed the interests of the working- and middle class by voting for legislation in line with the speaker's "Contract with America."

"I think there is a very deep disappointment and discontent in this district with the performance of Ehrlich," DeJuliis said. "He voted over 91 percent of the time with Newt Gingrich and 80 percent of the time for the Contract on America."

Ehrlich countered that the Democratic politics of his rival are out of touch with the district's voters. He says DeJuliis, who is married to a local labor leader, is being handled by "big labor bosses who are bought and paid for by the left wing of the Democratic Party."

"People resent high taxes. They want a balanced budget. They understand that regulatory and legal reform are very important," Ehrlich said. "They don't agree with much of what the Clinton administration has done -- and it's my job to make sure that they don't forget."

Democrats are gearing up forces -- including organized labor -- to try to knock Ehrlich out of the box, not only in an effort to take back the congressional seat, but also to derail his chances of higher office.

While some Maryland Democrats say privately that they fear Ehrlich could present a real challenge to Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1998, that is far less likely than a bid for the U.S. Senate. A more realistic assessment is that he could run against, and offer stiff opposition to, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in 2000 -- or sooner, against an appointed successor, if the senator were to step down.

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In the shorter term, however, state Democrats are focused on bouncing Ehrlich out of his seat. Their hope is DeJuliis, a one-time state delegate from Dundalk who lost her first congressional bid in the 1994 Democratic primary. She was lobbied hard by Glendening and House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt before deciding to run this time.

Last week, Democrats believed they detected a misstep on Ehrlich's part, when he said the GOP's apparent presidential nominee, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, was wrong in proposing vouchers for public housing tenants.

The Democrats believe Dole unwittingly undercut Ehrlich with the plan, because the congressman has been among the most vocal critics of the housing vouchers.

But Ehrlich did not shrink from his position, calling the Dole plan "simply the wrong policy direction."

"I am certainly going to make the point to Senator Dole that a new, innovative approach to housing policy at the federal level is desperately needed, and plans like [this] are precisely the wrong remedy for an increasingly difficult problem for the suburbs," he said.

Dole called for abolishing public housing and issuing vouchers to tenants to live anywhere they could afford -- a plan, short on specifics, that is not unlike a controversial federal program known as Moving to Opportunity, which helped 285 Baltimore families leave public housing for better neighborhoods in the city and suburbs.

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That plan drew furious opposition in eastern Baltimore County, in the heart of the 2nd District, in fall 1994 and prompted Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski to shut off further government spending on the program.

The uproar over vouchers has continued with the recent federal court settlement of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that calls for black public-housing residents in the city to move into mostly white middle-class neighborhoods in surrounding counties. The plan, which includes Baltimore County, is awaiting final court approval.

Ironically, DeJuliis said she, too, is opposed to such voucher plans as Moving to Opportunity because they do not meet any of the three principles that would determine her support for public housing programs -- "rewarding hard work, promoting personal responsibility and promoting home ownership."

Attempting to differentiate herself from Ehrlich on the issue, she said, "If I were the congressional representative from this district, I'd be at the table looking for a solution. If you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem."

Pub Date: 5/06/96


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