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Critical first lady takes off the gloves


OCEAN CITY -- On the eve of her husband's announcement that he will seek a second term, first lady Kendel Ehrlich went on the offensive yesterday, calling Mayor Martin O'Malley a "failure," saying legislative leaders renege on deals and predicting that the Democrats will try to steal the November election.

Ehrlich, a former prosecutor, has always been known as an aggressive promoter of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Yesterday, in a luncheon speech to Republican women, she showed that she could play a far different role in the coming campaign from most political spouses.

"This election couldn't be more important. It just couldn't be more important for this state," Kendel Ehrlich said. "It's going to be very petty, and it's petty because they're scared because their candidate is a failure."

Her remarks came as many of Maryland's major political players were gathered here for the annual Maryland Municipal League conference. O'Malley and his running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown, answered questions from the group in the morning and then traveled to Ocean Pines, where they held an informal chat with a half-dozen people around a family's kitchen table.

In his appearance at the conference, O'Malley made several references to a lack of priorities on the part of the state's leadership and criticized cuts in certain areas of state spending over the past four years, but generally avoided criticizing Ehrlich by name. The mayor promoted his record in Baltimore of managing efficiently and measuring results. "There's not a Democratic or Republican way to pick up trash, to keep the streets paved or keep the community safe," he said.

Kendel Ehrlich directed the bulk of her criticism yesterday at the General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats. She said the legislature has stood in the way of her husband because its leaders are mad that a Republican won the governor's race in 2002.

As a result, she said, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have routinely reneged on deals her husband made in the spirit of compromise. "His word is his word," she said of the governor.

Miller said that the reason the governor hasn't been able to work with the Assembly is that he hasn't been willing to put in the hard work necessary to form compromises.

Ehrlich said Democrats are so desperate to unseat her husband that they will change the rules of the election, an apparent reference to the legislature's enactment of a law that allows people to vote before Election Day. The Ehrlich campaign is backing a petition drive to try to stop early voting.

The Democrats' efforts to "mess with our franchise" make a mockery of U.S. soldiers who are dying overseas to promote democracy, she said. "When you have a legislature that is changing the rules just because it's a Republican governor ... that is horrific," she said. "It's blatant. They want to steal the election."

Democrats say they pushed for early voting to make it easier for voters who work long hours or have long commutes.

The first lady had plenty of barbs for the news media, and a jab for Ehrlich's predecessor, Parris N. Glendening. "I know his portrait is painted with the Chesapeake Bay in the background, but I don't think that qualifies you to be the environmental governor," she said. That distinction should belong to her husband, she said, because he championed legislation to help reduce nitrogen in the bay.

Donald Norris, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said it usually falls to a gubernatorial running mate to make sharp campaign attacks. "It's very much outside the role of the traditional political spouse," he said. "It's unprecedented in Maryland, and I'm sure most other states, as well."


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