Does the governor talk a good game?


As Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was waiting outside the Senate chamber that freezing Jan. 15 to be sworn in as governor, a wisecrack was in his head.

"Hey, they said it would be a cold day in hell when a Republican gets elected governor. And you know what - they were right!"

He promised his apprehensive staff that he wouldn't say it at the second ceremony outside, where hundreds had gathered on Lawyers Mall for the public celebration. But he figured it would go over well with the Senate crowd.

Ehrlich never got to use the joke, to his disappointment, because he didn't speak during the Senate ceremony.

To his Republican pals, it would have been classic Ehrlich: funny, genuine, winning.

And to his political foes, it would have been classic Ehrlich: light, locker-roomy, inappropriate.

Ehrlich's speaking style is what many consider his greatest political strength. As his longtime aide and communications director Paul E. Schurick puts it, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it. That's probably never been truer in Maryland politics than today. ... Some things transcend politics and ideology."

During the campaign, there seemed little doubt that Ehrlich won the "Whom would you rather have a beer with?" contest over Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - a fact that probably won him more votes than anyone might care to admit.

"His style has to be effective because he's a success story," said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican.

Ehrlich's record is hard to knock: He has won all of his election races.

But to many Democratic legislators charged with patching the state's thread-worn purse, Ehrlich's communications, while sometimes charming, have been frustratingly meatless at important moments.

After hearing his inaugural and State of the State speeches, some say they wonder whether he is fully engaged in the hard work ahead.

"[The speeches were] the best forum he was going to have to say, 'Here's why we're doing this,'" said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, referring to Ehrlich's proposal to legalize slot machines. "But he never mentioned it."

And when his budget secretary explained the governor's gambling proposal to the press this week, Ehrlich was conspicuously absent.

A nice guy's niceties

Almost a third of his State of the State speech was taken up with niceties.

"Lieutenant Governor Steele - and doesn't that sound good? ... Where's the speaker pro tem? The speaker pro tem is from Arbutus. What many of you do not know - and he doesn't know he's going to be introduced right now - is my best friend, inseparable friend, growing up is here today. And he is the brother of the speaker pro tem, Mr. Myron Williams. Myron? Where is he? There he is. In case there's any doubt, Arbutus does rule."

"He's a nice guy, and he wants everybody to like him," Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat, said of the governor. "But he doesn't focus much on substance and direction. He almost seems like he's still campaigning. Getting out of that mode would be helpful."

Ehrlich's speaking style is undeniably simple. He doesn't embellish, quote famous orators or fret over structure. He tends to use sentence fragments, and "with regard to" might be his most common oratorical standby.

'Ain't no intellectuals'

The general impression is that you're listening to a regular guy - which is entirely the point, says Ehrlich, who likes to repeat Schurick's quip from last summer: "Ain't no intellectuals in this campaign."

Whenever he addresses a crowd, whether it's a luncheon with church ladies or the State of the State, Ehrlich says he wants to come off as open, direct and accessible. Talking about sports and making jokes is all part of that effort, he says.

"People need to see you as a real person. That you're no different from them, and that you're going to use the same common sense you brought to the law, or to Congress, to being governor," he said.

Although he has read much by and about Winston Churchill, Ehrlich says he doesn't model his style on anyone else's. But, he points out, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy used humor often, "and they were very effective communicators."

In Congress, Ehrlich asked his staff to compile talking points, and he silently hashed out what he wanted to say on the brief walk from his office to the House floor, said Henry Fawell, his spokesman then and now.

He writes the first drafts of major speeches before passing them on to Richard J. Cross III, his speechwriter, who hesitates to use the word "speech" when discussing his boss. "It's more of a framework," Cross said.

When he has a stupid idea, Ehrlich said, his staff tells him, and when he is worried something he wants to say is tasteless, he asks Schurick's opinion.

He's not one to spend much time, if any, rehearsing. During the campaign, he did not prepare for the televised debate with Townsend, an event that left him faltering at times.

He practiced his State of the State address, which was built on the personal stories of five Marylanders, by reading it to his wife, Kendel. Schurick said the address and other remarks have been tested on "a couple of very close counselors" outside the governor's office for reaction.

Apparent sincerity

Whatever the process, the result is that people seem convinced that Ehrlich believes what he says - a quality that has also benefited President Bush, despite his verbal difficulties. "It's natural, it's not a schtick. Unlike a lot of politicians, there's no on and off switch," Schurick said.

Some people say Ehrlich would do well to develop an "off" button, or at least a stricter internal editor.

His "No chicks allowed" comment in reference to a boxing match he attended last month prompted a letter of protest from the local chapter of the National Organization of Women.

He has referred publicly to his intimate relations with his wife on at least two occasions. And addressing a roomful of college faculty and college presidents at Goucher College in December, Ehrlich introduced his spokeswoman, Shareese N. DeLeaver, as the "good-looking woman" in the back of the room.

"He has a very informal, collegiate type of approach to people," said Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat, "sometimes, however, bordering on a male locker room."

Grosfeld says she believes that some women are especially put off by Ehrlich's style. "The stature of the office should command a more mature attitude and presence," she said.

Others say they're more worried about substance than style.

"I've known him for a long time, and I like him. He's friendly," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a Montgomery County Democrat. "But I think the official communications so far have been pretty devoid of content." "

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and one of the General Assembly's most outspoken progressives, said he has been shocked by the lack of depth in the two most important speeches Ehrlich will probably give all year.

"I'm not sure that hangin' loose is going to get the job done," Pinsky said. "We haven't seen the intellectual side of the new governor yet. It seems he hasn't given enough thought to leading. ... Someone said to me, 'Give him time. Don't rain on his parade.' Well, you got 5 million people who want to know the forecast."

Despite his critics, Ehrlich seems to enjoy fairly broad support - or at least the benefit of the doubt. Politics watchers say that the general public is far more forgiving, and patient, than the legislature.

"We're probably going to go through much of this legislative term watching the Ehrlich administration learn," said James G. Gimpel, an associate professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. "He's going to focus on events as they come up. There might not be a sort of grand vision or plan there - but then again, that might not matter ... when there's no money to spend anyway."

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