Ehrlich says he's unfazed by his rocky beginning

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Days after his revised slot-machine gambling plan was roundly panned, his pick for environmental secretary was on the verge of rejection and his administration was forced to backtrack from its lack of support for a Baltimore transit plan, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. leaned back in his office yesterday and declared it a good run.

"This week's been pretty good," Ehrlich said in an interview. "We're pretty close to 'yes' on slots. You guys feel it. I am extremely pleased on slots."

But outside his second-floor State House office, Ehrlich's view isn't widely shared.

Others - both lawmakers and lobbyists - believe things went from bad to worse for a young Republican administration that was already on its heels.

In the past several days, Ehrlich saw one of his Cabinet secretary nominees turned down by a Democrat-dominated Senate committee for the first time in modern history.

A little more than 48 hours later, he released misleading percentages for his revised slot machine bill, conceding that his first effort was a complete failure.

The new plan doubled the amount of money that track owners would receive and cut funding for schools, although charts released by the administration obscured those figures.

Ehrlich also pulled the plug on a rail plan for Baltimore without telling local leaders or members of the state's congressional delegation, then back-pedaled the next day.

All that came after what already seemed like a nadir. A week earlier, Ehrlich had accused the House speaker of playing racial politics, outraging a group of African-American ministers and leaving longtime delegates flabbergasted at the personal swipe.

He also appeared to reverse a campaign pledge, threatening that a plan to boost public school funding would be cut if his slots bill fails.

"He's certainly shown a great deal of ineptitude," said Isiah Leggett, the chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, which in recent days has issued a series of press clippings under the title "Governor Meltdown."

"Many did not expect this level of mistakes so soon on so many important issues."

As his political capital oozes away in the fight for the nomination of his environmental secretary and his gambling plan, other parts of Ehrlich's first-year agenda seem to have faded.

The governor's push for faith-based initiatives and charter schools has moved from the back burner to the ice box, although he did secure a deal with the U.S. attorney on a Project Exile gun-crime program.

Some political observers say the turbulence stems from the natural friction generated by a divided government.

Ehrlich, they point out, is the first GOP governor since Spiro T. Agnew. He has inherited a projected $1.3 billion budget deficit and is in the middle of his first session of the General Assembly, which continues to be controlled by Democrats.

"These waters are going to be troubled, and the people of Maryland ought to expect this because this is what they did in the last election," said James G. Gimpel, an associate professor of government at University of Maryland, College Park.

"They sent a strong Democratic legislature to work with an institutionally strong Republican governor. If they wanted smooth sailing, they should have sent a Republican legislature."

But some think that Ehrlich's troubles spread beyond divided government - that a bumbling administration is tripping on its shoelaces. The good will that Ehrlich carried into office is fast dissipating, they say, and his vaunted ability to schmooze with legislators - he was one of them for eight years - has not yet paid dividends.

"Governors are entitled to a bad first year, but this has been extraordinary," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County, adding that Ehrlich is in desperate need of a stronger senior staff. "The people he has right now are awful."

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, has taken to calling Ehrlich "Governor Bialystock," a reference to the inept, scheming Broadway showman at the center of Mel Brooks' play, The Producers.

"It means overselling, over-promising the value of what he's offering," Rosenberg said. Referring to slots, he said: "He's selling it, but it's schlock."

Much of the criticism centers on slots, which was the linchpin of both Ehrlich's campaign and his legislative agenda.

The original bill, drafted without much outside input, called for public schools to get 64 percent of net proceeds. The revised plan released this week reduced the share to 44 percent, although Ehrlich first told reporters and lawmakers it was much higher. The deception made enemies.

Many lawmakers say that with 30 days left in session, time is running out to digest and debate the intricate components of the slots-at-racetracks plan.

And slots turmoil is bleeding into other issues, some lawmakers say.

Ehrlich's nominee for environmental secretary, Lynn Y. Buhl, "is in trouble politically because of how Ehrlich has performed on slots," Rosenberg said. "He's seen as weak."

But others say that in the past week, Ehrlich has grown in stature. They predict he could be on the verge of resuscitating Buhl's nomination after a potentially fatal vote at the beginning of the week.

"I think most observers would have said Monday it's over, but it seems to be quite far from that today [Friday]," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, the minority whip from Baltimore County. "That seems like a pretty good week to me."

Ehrlich rejects the view that his administration has been sub-par.

"The story can't be written because too many of the big stories have not come to a close," he said.

During the interview in his office, Ehrlich pointed to his desk, and said his "whip count" on slots - tracking the number of lawmakers who will back his plan - shows he has a majority in both houses.

He denied trying to mislead lawmakers or the public with his revised slots numbers. "It really would have been stupid for us to manipulate something that everyone can figure out in 15 minutes," Ehrlich said.

Administration supporters smell a distinctly partisan odor to much of the criticism.

"I think they are holding up well, despite some pretty bitter partisan attacks," said Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, the House minority whip from Easton. "Many of the hits on slots are totally irresponsible. The Democrats are playing politics across the board.

"I don't think they have the upper hand - we haven't taken a vote. It's still the dance. Who's winning? Who's losing? I don't think you can say," Schisler said.

And even some prominent Democrats are willing to withhold judgment.

"The issues that were discussed during the campaign - reduction of the deficit, fixing the budget, and slots - there really wasn't time to develop a comprehensive plan for these complex issues," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler. "I don't know how much of the criticism is fair or unfair. They say watching law made is like watching sausages made - you don't want to see it."

Ehrlich realizes the stakes are high as the Assembly session draws to a close and many issues remain unresolved. He concedes he will be stained if gridlock over slots and the budget prevents the session from ending on time.

"We want to get out of here in 90 days," he said. "It's good for the Democrats, and it's important for this administration."

Rosenberg isn't ruling out that Governor Bialystock might still steal the show.

"It's still good to be the governor," he said, continuing to borrow from Mel Brooks. "So there still may be time for Springtime for Ehrlich."

Sun staff writers Michael Dresser and Tim Craig contributed to this article.

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