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Ehrlich sounds like a liberal


THE IDEA was downright Glendening-esque.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stood before some of the Mid-Atlantic's most prominent environmental leaders last month to introduce himself as a passionate advocate of the Chesapeake Bay. To restore its purity, he said, he wanted to charge most Maryland homeowners $30 a year to finance an upgrade of sewage plants and lower the amount of nitrogen dumped into troubled state waters.

The plan could have come straight from the lips of Ehrlich's immediate predecessor, former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, an unabashed liberal and Maryland's greenest chief executive since Harry Hughes, also a Democrat. But here was Ehrlich, a no-new-taxes Republican, who as a congressman got an "F" grade from the League of Conservation Voters, asking Marylanders to dig deeper into their pockets to improve the nation's largest estuary.

Ehrlich dumbfounded his Democratic opponents. They grumbled something about the charge being a "flush tax" - not the user fee Ehrlich claimed - but found little fault with the substance.

"It's a great idea," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. McIntosh is considering some alterations, such as including septic tanks in the program, but overall, she said, "I support this approach."

As he begins his second year in office, Ehrlich appears to have adopted a time-honored strategy for wringing wins from a legislative branch dominated by the opposing party. Like Ronald Reagan in California and Bill Clinton in Washington, Ehrlich has reached across the aisle for policy ideas and is making them his own.

Several of the governor's legislative priorities and recent decisions could easily have come from a Democratic regime, instead of the one-time eager lieutenant to conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich.

Ehrlich wants to divert money spent on locking up drug addicts to provide them treatment instead. State-funded college scholarships should be based more on need than on merit, he says.

A major civil-rights initiative is said to be in the works. Ehrlich's first appointee to the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, was an African-American Democrat, Clayton Greene Jr. of Anne Arundel County.

And in the past week, the governor tamped down anti-Baltimore sentiment that is rampant among Republicans as he offered a $42 million bailout loan for the deficit-ridden city schools.

Through it all, Democrats have found little to criticize. They may snipe about the former football player's sports center-and-pizza demeanor or his determined focus on slot machines, but complaints that Ehrlich is steering Maryland sharply to the right have faded considerably.

"I hate to compliment him, but it's smart strategy," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat who is the House majority leader.

Ehrlich says it is not a strategy at all. The ideas, he said, are consistent with his voting record and priorities as a state delegate and congressman.

"Nobody had to force these initiatives on us," Ehrlich said. "The Democrats didn't come to us and say, 'Do sewage treatment; do disabilities; do drug treatment.' They were ours. They were internally generated."

Still, the governor has clearly chosen to pursue more moderate ideas this year. Gone from discussions are divisive proposals that surfaced during the campaign, such as eliminating the state's capital gains tax or establishing a faith-based social services network.

Ehrlich was schooled in the technique of grabbing initiatives from the opposition as a four-term congressman, says James Gimpel, an associate professor of government at University of Maryland, College Park and a former aide to Republican U.S. Sen. Daniel R. Coats of Indiana. "One of the places where you learn how to do that is in a congressional majority, on a committee," Gimpel said. "I suspect he probably got some pretty good ideas on that."

Wisely, Ehrlich seems to be staying away from the most extreme Democratic positions, Gimpel said.

"If this guy is going to get a re-elect, he has to establish a record that is going to put him in the center," he said. "There is everything to gain by doing this and nothing to lose."

Some, however, have taken to wondering what are the governor's true passions and ideologies.

"He was more moderate when he was a delegate. He was a real right-winger in Congress. Now it's hard to ascertain where he is," said Barve, the majority leader. "The big question is how long will the right wing of the Republican Party let him get away with it."

Indeed, Ehrlich has yet to embrace many of the causes that conservative Republicans in the assembly have fought over for years, including greater restrictions on abortions and undoing some of the state's tough gun laws. "Do we need the governor to take the front burner on that? No," says state Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican and Senate minority whip. "On the social issues, his record is clear."

So far, the party seems to be coalescing around the leader, although there are signs of strain over some issues, such as funding for transportation.

"I don't see anything liberal at all in the policies," Harris said. In a two-party state, he said, a governor must "come up with ideas that don't cause an overt clash, and that is what Bob Ehrlich is all about."

Ehrlich's moderate agenda comes after a disastrous first year in Annapolis, when his slots bill was defeated and other initiatives were tossed aside. Some political strategists recommended that Ehrlich begin paying closer attention to history. Some pointed to Reagan and his difficulties dealing with the California assembly after his election in 1966.

Elected as a fiery conservative but ill-equipped to deal with a Democratic-controlled legislature in Sacramento, Reagan foundered for months before turning into a pragmatist. In the summer of 1967, he authored one of the largest tax increases in California history.

Republicans were outraged, but "Reagan took the attack in stride," wrote Lou Cannon in his 2003 book Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power, "aware that expressions of displeasure on the right contributed to his growing reputation as a responsible executive who refused to let ideology interfere with effective governance."

In an interview, Cannon said: "Reagan did govern in a way that was quite different than his rhetoric."

Clinton, too, used the approach as president. Republicans had talked for years about balancing the budget and reforming welfare, but Clinton made those initiatives his own, developing centrist credentials that made him the first Democrat elected twice since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Ehrlich rejects the comparison: "Bill Clinton had to be dragged kicking and screaming to welfare reform," the governor said. "These initiatives are ours."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, one of the state's leading Democrats, said Ehrlich cannot change his stripes. Ehrlich is driven by a "far more right-wing, starve-the-beast philosophy inherited from Ronald Reagan, copied from George W. Bush and inculcated by Newt Gingrich," O'Malley said. "He's also very slick and skilled in a public relations way at holding up things that would cover those hard right-turning tracks."

That's a message that voters could hear often during the 2006 campaign, which many expect will feature an O'Malley-Ehrlich match-up for governor. But if Ehrlich's moderate agenda becomes law, he'll build a thick shield against such accusations.

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