Declaring she was launching a more aggressive campaign for governor, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend attacked Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s record on a variety of issues yesterday, saying "he is clearly out of step with Maryland's mainstream."
"He doesn't understand people can be upset with his record because of what it does to their communities," Townsend said after speaking to a group of child-welfare advocates. "They don't like the deaths from Saturday Night Specials [handguns], and they don't like to see the deaths from smoking."
The lieutenant governor was referring to Ehrlich's stances on gun control and tobacco taxes, two of many issues that Townsend, who is trying hard to shore up her Democratic support, raised yesterday in speaking at the Maryland Children's Action Network convention in Columbia.
Ehrlich spoke to the same group several hours earlier, but didn't focus on Townsend. Instead, he used the forum to begin fleshing out his positions on juvenile justice, mental health and education issues.
He told the group of mostly liberal Democrats that if he is elected governor, their organizations should not expect increases in state funding next year.
"It's all about carving up the pie, and this pie has serious problems right now," said Ehrlich, referring to the state's estimated $1 billion budget deficit. "Over-promising is what got us into this place in the first place."
Ehrlich said he would fully fund the Thornton Commission legislation - which the General Assembly passed this year - calling for annual state aid to public schools to increase by $1.3 billion over six years.
Ehrlich said he intends to pay for the increase by legalizing slot machines at racetracks, which could bring in up to $400 million a year.
When Townsend addressed the group - composed of 300 representatives from more than 100 public and private social organizations - she was less clear about how she would pay for the increased aid.
"We have a $22 billion budget. We will find the money," said Townsend, who also ruled out additional taxes. "It's my top priority."
Townsend also pledged to fund all-day kindergarten and vowed to hire more foster-care caseworkers. She talked about her plans to offer state-subsidized health insurance to parents of poor children.
Glimpses of views
Ehrlich steered clear of major policy announcements but began offering glimpses of where he stands on several major issues.
Although his proposal for reforming the state's juvenile justice system will not be released for a few weeks, Ehrlich said yesterday that the plan will not include boot camps for youth offenders.
In April, Ehrlich said that "boot camps are the right solution" for some youth offenders. Yesterday, he said he is discarding the idea because it is "politically impossible."
Maryland operated three juvenile boot camps in Allegany County from 1996 until 1999, when they were closed after The Sun published articles describing repeated beatings and violence by guards against young criminals.
Ehrlich also said he wants "faith-based" organizations to begin assisting secular organizations that administer state-funded drug treatment. President Bush's faith-based aid initiative is stalled in Congress.
"We are going to bring that to the treatment regimen in Maryland," Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich and Townsend said they would reform the state's mental health system and Medicaid program, and try to find more funding.
Townsend accused Ehrlich of voting in Congress to cut $182 billion from Medicaid in 1995, which she said resulted in a loss of health insurance for 116,000 state residents.
Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick said Ehrlich's vote was a fiscally prudent one to "slow the rate of growth. It was not to cut the budget to the Medicaid program."
Townsend also jumped on comments Ehrlich made yesterday about the Children's Defense Fund, a national child advocacy group.
Someone at the convention asked Ehrlich why the Children's Defense Fund, a child-welfare advocacy group, gave him a rating of nine out of 100 with regard to issues in Congress affecting children.
Ehrlich replied, "The Children's Defense Fund and I don't agree on anything. If you look at their philosophical agenda, it's not mine. It's a fact."
Townsend began her speech several hours later by reading the Children's Defense Fund's mission: "To leave no child behind and ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start and a moral start."
"Sounds good to me," Townsend told the convention.
She said later that Ehrlich's comments about the Children's Defense Fund prove that he is out of touch. "He is running ads that say he is moderate, and in a moment of candor he says he doesn't support an organization that is fighting for kids," she said.
Independent of ads
Townsend took her get-tough approach with Ehrlich the same day the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance began running radio ads attacking his positions on gun control, cigarette taxes and slot machines.
Townsend said her campaign had nothing to do with the ads but that her attacks on Ehrlich's record will continue.
"It's time to put the focus on my record and his record, because there is a big difference," Townsend said.
Several people who heard Ehrlich speak yesterday - including a prominent Democratic Townsend supporter - said the lieutenant governor needs to do an even better job of distinguishing herself from Ehrlich, who has pulled even in the polls.
"I thought [Ehrlich] did pretty well. I think he was very honest about the budget," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who listened to Ehrlich's speech.
Ross Pologe, director of the Fellowship of Lights, a youth and community service organization, agreed.
"I know [Ehrlich] was a floor leader in [Newt] Gingrich's Contract for America, but a different person came forward today," the Democrat said.
Sun staff writer Sarah Koenig contributed to this article.