GUIDING PRINCIPLE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The debate in the Maryland Senate is as electric as it's ever been. Television cameras are three deep. There are accusations of vote trading and partisanship in the Democrat-controlled chamber, complaints about a governor who could muck up the Chesapeake Bay with his choice of Lynn Buhl as environmental secretary, even fears of bigger cancer bills if she is confirmed.

The Republican governor knows he is about to lose - big time - as he speaks in a far-away conference room about leadership.

Vince Lombardi did not win every game, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says over the crinkle of bag lunches. Leadership is about standing on principle and taking your lumps. No matter what, he tells a group organized by the Greater Baltimore Committee, you always want to come up with the best idea. You shouldn't run if you don't have new ideas.

These business types aren't shy. They ask the governor: Is there anything you would have done differently in your first months?

They refer, presumably, to what the newspapers call Ehrlich's rocky start: a poorly conceived slots bill, his personal attack on the popular Speaker of the House, the initial neglect of a key Baltimore rail line in his list of federal transportation projects and, now, the battle in the Senate, controlled by a Democrat who has been his friend on slots.

"No," the governor says, "we've been perfect."

He pauses while they laugh.

"Of course, you make mistakes. You are only human." Then he reminds them what happened during his campaign, the strategy he had for six months that led to his win, and the incredulous reaction from the press.

"Are you surprised?" reporters asked. Well, no.

And he recounts his successes as governor: A seamless transition. All but one cabinet member approved by the Senate. Appointments that made people happy. No battles on the Board of Public Works.

"I think we've had a pretty smooth transition," he says, "and we're going to get our slots."

"Today," he says, "is a hiccup."

A big ego is essential to being a leader. So says Bob Ehrlich. He's been talking about leadership all week, the week he becomes the first governor in modern history to see a cabinet member rejected.

Ego. It's what gives you the confidence to make your case. To take your lumps. But it can't be more important than principle. It has to be No. 2. Or No. 3. Otherwise, you are in danger of placating groups that contradict the way you feel. You become a politician, not a leader, he says.

Take Buhl. He was willing to deal but only so far. The Black Caucus asked for an African-American deputy. Fine, he said. One lawmaker asked him to get rid of a deputy that environmentalists didn't like. Fine. Another recommended somebody for a seat on a commission. Fine.

But one thing is sacred, Ehrlich tells the business group: The governor gets to choose his cabinet. The only thing he'd heard against Buhl was that she was from Michigan. He wasn't going to let a senator tell him how to run his department. (The senator proposed to delay the vote on Buhl until January.) "'That's the way it's been,' the senator says. I said, 'That's not the way it is now.'"

The business people ask about the budget numbers Ehrlich's office will release later this day. The hole in this year's budget has jumped to at least $450 million.

To Ehrlich, the new numbers are another hiccup.

Bad, yes, but they make his plan to bring in new revenue from slots look better.

"Clearly taxes are not the answer," he says. "That's why I was elected."

After the vote against Buhl, Ehrlich sympathizes with his nominee by cell phone as he walks down the street to his next appointment.

Ehrlich's aides are also on their cell phones. The press has staked out Chick & Ruth's Delly, where a new sandwich named for the governor is to be unveiled. The governor appears not to notice the throng of 30 reporters, spilling into the street in front of the deli. Ehrlich walks calmly down the cobblestones toward the cabal. Under the light of television cameras, he charges the mob, staying 20 minutes to answer questions.

As much as Ehrlich rags on the press, which is five times this day, he loves taking reporters on. Curious drivers clog traffic while he talks. Nobody gets into Chick & Ruth's today.

Ehrlich is opening the gate into the governor's mansion later when he spots E.J. Pipkin, a freshman Republican from the Eastern Shore. "Senator," he calls before he runs over, grabs the man's hand and thanks him heartily for his vote.

Not until Ehrlich arrives to speak to a roomful of families toting strollers and diaper bags does he reveal his disappointment over the vote. He pats little heads. He talks about his son, Drew. Mothers with babies run to pose with him for pictures. He obliges. They are here to lobby against cuts to daycare centers, and he urges them on. Anything he can do for families.

"We need some love today," he yells to the crowd, using his trademark plural pronoun, "and we know where to come to get it!"

On the day after the Buhl defeat, some Republicans around the Statehouse look like they have hangovers. Not Buhl, who emerges from the governor's office smiling. And not the governor. He is comfortable with defeat, he says, as long as he knows he did the right thing.

The truth is, he says, "We thought our first defeat would come earlier than this."

He is speaking about leadership again, to the Carroll County student government association. None of the kids wants to be governor, he discovers. Nobody wants to be Senate president, either, or worse, a member of the press. By this time, the press has filtered in, following their noses to what looks like a historic meeting. As Ehrlich speaks to the kids, his supposed enemies show up - the Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller, who led the fight against Buhl, and the Speaker of the House, Michael E. Busch, who is leading the fight against his slots bill.

The three leaders pose for pictures with the school kids. Ehrlich called the meeting, he says, when he saw everybody staking out positions that were fast becoming intractable, spelling disaster for the last days of the session. Until today, the governor has maintained he would not accept new taxes.

"They need to know where I'm coming from, too," he said.

Alone in his office, the phone rings. It's Jervis Finney, his adviser, asking about a $1 million budget item.

"Bad behavior does not get rewarded," Ehrlich tells Finney. "Bad behavior does not get rewarded."

He's laughing. "I hear you, Jervis, I hear you."

"This is a very difficult game," he says after he hangs up. "I like to win."

In a few minutes, he meets the Harford County delegation, some of whom argued passionately for Buhl.

"You all were great," Ehrlich tells them.

They start on their list of schools that need to be built, schools that need to be expanded, schools that need a new roof.

"One at a time," the governor orders.

He tells them he has begun talks with lawmakers to find common ground. Income tax is a non-starter, "but maybe there is something else the corporate community can live with that won't violate our principles."

A day from now, some Republicans will protest that he is considering any tax. Local officials will react angrily to his administration's idea to remove local zoning power so malls for slots can be built rapidly. And senators will ditch his slots bill and begin writing their own.

The ups and downs don't bother Ehrlich. He doesn't read newspapers on the advice of Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor, and President George W. Bush, for fear of getting caught up in the short term.

"This is all about the end game," he says.

From where Ehrlich sits, things are going well.

We have bills moving: Charter schools and Project Exile, an aggressive pursuit of people who commit gun crimes. We'll get slots, he says. Tomorrow, he has another breakfast with the anti-slots speaker.

And another talk on leadership.

Why, Ehrlich asks, is he scheduled to speak at so many leadership groups this week?

"You've come at a very interesting time," he tells business leaders from Allegany County. He gives his practiced talk, but something about this week reminds him of Winston Churchill, his hero, who stood on principle, knowing it could cost him re-election. It was Churchill who called politics almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. Now Ehrlich knows what he means: "In war, you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times."

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