Ehrlich focuses on achievements, not on feuding


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Del. Clarence Davis, a Republican and a Democrat, were all smiles and compliments as they shared a podium to announce a new way to funnel money to programs helping at-risk Baltimore children.

"This governor, Governor Bobby Ehrlich, I can still call him that after all these years ... has stayed true to his word," Davis said at the event early this month, praising the governor's commitment to the new More for Maryland program.

It was a bipartisan scene that has been rare in Annapolis but is becoming more common as the governor spends less time feuding with the General Assembly and seeks to weave a string of accomplishments to carry him into an election year.

Ehrlich has made a series of headline-grabbing announcements recently, from the closing of a troubled juvenile detention center to the revelation of an unexpectedly large budget surplus. They are decisions and declarations he has been able to make unilaterally or with the backing of Republicans and Democrats alike.

While Ehrlich's opponents are gearing up their efforts to unseat him, making political appearances around the state and hiring campaign staff, the governor is taking a different approach.

He and his aides have made clear that it will be by making news, not by the blanket Democrat--bashing that marked the first 2 1/2 years of his term, that he intends to make his case for re-election.

"For the most part, the next election in Maryland is going to be a referendum on the Ehrlich-Steele administration," the governor said. "We're going to have a great record."

The scene with Davis was what many in Annapolis expected to see a lot of when Ehrlich, just eight years removed from his time as a member of the House of Delegates, returned to the State House as governor: the young executive standing next to an old legislative friend announcing a new program enacted with bipartisan cooperation.

But the story for much of Ehrlich's first years in office has been different. Blocked by the General Assembly in some high-profile initiatives, he has railed against Democratic legislators as obstructionists, harangued them for failing to show enough respect and criticized them in speeches as arrogant, power-hungry tax-aholics.

At the end of this year's rancorous legislative session, Ehrlich promised more of the same, vowing, for example, to spend the summer telling veterans about how Democrats killed his proposal for a military retiree tax credit.

But it didn't happen. The feuding hasn't completely ended - Ehrlich and his aides have lashed out at legislators preparing to investigate administration personnel practices - but by and large, the governor has taken a different course.

Busy schedule

During the summer, Ehrlich has been on a roughly one-announcement-a-week pace, starting with his surprise decision last month to close the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County.

Eleven days later, he stood at a failing intersection in Montgomery County and unveiled his decision for a route for the Inter-County Connector, raising the possibility that he will break ground on the long-awaited road before the 2006 election.

The next week, he announced that the state had a $1 billion surplus in fiscal 2005 and trumpeted his administration's progress in reversing budget deficits inherited from his predecessor.

And just a day after returning from a short vacation last month, he announced More for Maryland, the new program to obtain private-sector investment for drug treatment, job training and other services.

Republican consultant Carol L. Hirschburg said it makes sense that the governor would be spending more time at this stage in his term making announcements than criticizing Democrats.

It takes time for any new governor to put his team in place and begin making changes, and as the first Republican executive in three decades, Ehrlich was bound to take longer than most new governors, Hirschburg said. But it's likely that he will have plenty more news to make in the next year, she said.

"If you have good things to announce, it obviously would be a better strategy than sitting around and talking about the obstructionist legislature," Hirschburg said.

The announcements come with questions. Democrats and advocates have complained that insufficient planning has gone into a replacement for the Hickey School. The ICC route, in order to be more palatable to the Environmental Protection Agency, will force the demolition of more houses. And budget watchers say the administration's $1 billion surplus calculation is exaggerated and glosses over long-term fiscal problems.

Empty words?

But Ehrlich gets the first word, and critics have been relegated to the background. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it makes for good politics but risky governance if the announcements aren't thought through.

"A lot of it has no substance to it. It makes good PR and it sucks [the news media] in, and he gets his picture taken and gets headlines, but there's no follow-through," Miller said. "There's no there there."

Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Ehrlich is just doing what incumbents do: setting the agenda.

"Anytime he does something of significance, the media has to follow him," said Schaller, a supporter of Democrats.

"He can overdo it a little if every event becomes a media event, but as long as the events have some sort of policy message of substance, he can continue to command media attention," he said.

Ehrlich has occasionally made waves through media events that critics said were overstaged, such as handing over the keys to armored police vehicles last winter. Howard County Executive James N. Robey and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley boycotted the event, and their spokesmen said the state had little to do with the purchase.

But the recent events have been different. Even critics acknowledge that the announcements have dealt with substantial topics, and in most cases, the governor has allowed Democrats or protesters a share of the spotlight.

At the Hickey School announcement, Ehrlich surrounded himself not only with administration officials and Republican legislators, but also with independent advocates, such as Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, an Owings Mills Democrat who has criticized the administration's juvenile justice reform efforts.

Zirkin said he appreciates the governor's invitation, but he added that that kind of courtesy doesn't change his dislike for a plan that funnels more troubled kids into private group homes in residential communities.

"I wouldn't have gone if I'd known what it was about," he said. "What are you supposed to do at a press conference like that except move as far away from the cameras as possible?"

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