Allies defend governor with respect to civility

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Within hours of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s State of the State speech this week, Democratic legislators were working up an Aretha Franklin-style "Respect" number for the annual Legislative Follies, to mock the governor's demand for respect from the General Assembly.

But administration officials and other Republicans say it's no joke. Behind the sometimes-cryptic references to respect in his six-minute introduction to Thursday's speech lie specific complaints about mistreatment that Ehrlich believes he has received from the Democrat-dominated legislature.

Republicans say the governor was angry at being grilled during a legislative hearing on his medical malpractice bill; at Democrats' calls for his insurance commissioner's resignation; and at some legislators' refusal to stand - or even put down their newspapers - when he walked into the House chamber for the State of the State speech.

Although Ehrlich's remarks overshadowed the rest of his address - mostly a review of the year's legislative priorities and a recitation of the past two years' accomplishments - his allies said he needed to make them. "It's essentially the 800-pound gorilla in the room," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican, referring to the uncivil tone that many say dominates Annapolis this year.

As a former member of the legislature, "Ehrlich laments the fact that the institution is not the way he left it and that our experiment in divided government, unfortunately, has radically changed our institution," Shank said.

Many Democrats said they were perplexed or upset after Ehrlich's remarks, though Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch largely shrugged them off. Miller said Annapolis needs to become more respectful, but he said it's not all the legislature's fault.

"The problem is he's hired all these people from Capitol Hill. He needs to lecture his staff on that same point," Miller said.

In his remarks, Ehrlich said a governor should be treated with respect when he appears before committees and be treated with dignity when he enters a legislative chamber. He said that legislative committees should work from the administration's bills, and that elected officials should not attack the ethics and integrity of each other.

Part of his complaint appears to stem from aggressive questioning from a Senate committee about his medical malpractice bill during the special session he called last month. Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, said several colleagues have told him they think the governor was talking about his questions - including asking Ehrlich at one point whether he had read his own bill.

Pinsky said he meant no disrespect in grilling the governor on a technical point.

"People who know me know I'm pretty critical, and I go after the truth. That's why I'm up here," he said. "I did the same thing to Gov. [Parris N.] Glendening."

Miller said Ehrlich might have a valid complaint about his treatment. "I've heard from members of his party that he was subject to very rude cross-examination," Miller said. "His bill was not taken up first. He was not recognized first. If I was there, it would have been handled differently."

Republican legislators said they think Ehrlich's complaint about attacks on ethics and integrity was a reference to the recent flap over how Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. granted requests from health maintenance organizations to pass on a recent premium tax to their customers.

Democrats said they thought Redmer was acting out of political motives and not in the best interests of consumers. Miller called on him to resign. But Republicans said a Democrat's motives wouldn't have been questioned - in fact, Redmer's predecessor did essentially the same thing two years ago, they said.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, said he has heard complaints from the administration that Democrats are starting to introduce copycat bills that are essentially the same as Ehrlich's initiatives but have Democrats as sponsors as a way to deny the governor credit.

Balanced against these complaints, Ehrlich used his speech to praise Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, as an example of how someone from the other party can maintain his views but also be respectful. What brought Hoyer to mind, said Ehrlich communications chief Paul Schurick, was the congressman's phone call the day before to apologize for a remark about Ehrlich in an article in the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call.

The article, which relied largely on unnamed sources, was about speculation that Hoyer would run against Ehrlich in 2006. An anonymous Democrat was quoted in the story as saying: "Hoyer hates Ehrlich and hates the fact that we don't have a Democratic governor."

Ehrlich said Hoyer called to tell him that he does hate that Maryland doesn't have a Democratic governor, but that he has respect for Ehrlich and the office. Hoyer spokeswoman Katie Elbert said she couldn't confirm or deny the governor's account because the conversation was private.

Democrats and Republicans alike have bemoaned the changed tone in Annapolis since Ehrlich took office. Neither side appears to hold out much hope for a new era of civility, particularly in the third year of a four-year term, with the next election looming. But that doesn't mean lawmakers can't get anything done, Miller said.

"The public dealt us divided government, and we're learning to live with it," he said. "In the fourth year, we're going to take out the machine guns. I'm going to go after him, and he's going to go after me."

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