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Inflexibility, not ideology, led to Ehrlich loss, critics say

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had hoped his election as Maryland's first Republican chief executive in decades was the start of a historic realignment toward true two-party rule.

In his few post-election comments, Ehrlich said the state has indeed shifted - but away from his party. His tenure, he suggested, was a blip, and his defeat all but inevitable in a state accustomed to one-party government.

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"It's clear in Maryland that there is a direction people are more comfortable with," Ehrlich said on WBAL-AM last week. "It's the way it's always been. And then we had this four-year sort of off-course thing, and people are clearly more comfortable with a single-party kind of deal here. They did not like the conflict."

But others say that neither the conflict nor the election loss was inevitable. Maryland Democrats - and, privately, some Republicans - say the bitterness that dominated Annapolis for the past four years was a result of the way Ehrlich governed and not produced by voter sentiment against the governor's ideology.

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If Ehrlich had compromised more and made allies instead of enemies, they say, he would have had a better chance of fulfilling his potential to boost the state Republican Party to numbers not previously seen.

Outside of a tight circle of advisers, the administration saw many potential enemies, and often it hunkered down to fight them rather than try to win them over, according to politicians of both parties who clashed publicly or privately with the governor.

Del. John R. Leopold, whose win as Anne Arundel County executive was the lone bright spot for the state GOP this year, said it's clear that Republicans in Maryland need to look for ways to work with Democrats instead of clashing with them.

"It's important to be pragmatic and to try to build bridges with people on both sides of the aisle and with people who don't share your point of view," said Leopold, who was careful to avoid couching his comments as criticism of Ehrlich.

"It is not only possible, it's essential," Leopold said. "In order to govern in a state in which your party is in the minority, you have to build bridges and you have to be willing to make those compromises, not only to get re-elected but to get things done."

Republican governors are a rarity for Maryland. The state has only elected five in the party's 150-year history, and only one, Theodore R. McKeldin, served two terms.

When Ehrlich announced his run for governor in 2002, the then-congressman was viewed as a long shot to beat the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. But she proved to be a weak candidate, and voter fatigue with Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration helped Ehrlich slide in with a modest 69,000-vote margin.

With Ehrlich's win came thousands of appointments to boards, agencies and judgeships, along with control of local and state boards of elections. After a shaky start, Ehrlich took full control of the machinery - using the state tourism office to produce television ads in which he starred, and demanding that every agency public information office in effect be part of his re-election bid.

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But little true party-building took place. Republicans made no gains in voter registration, and they ended the four-year period with fewer seats in the Assembly than in the beginning. Party Chairman John M. Kane is almost certain to leave his position, and the Republican bench of future political leaders appears thin.

The current district lines mean Maryland will almost certainly have two Republican congressmen out of an eight-member delegation for a few more election cycles. But chances for picking up a statewide office are minimal.

The conventional view among Republicans is that Ehrlich's defeat this year had nothing to do with what happened in Maryland but with the national sentiment that hurt Republicans nationwide. The buzz word of the week to describe what happened to the Maryland GOP is "tsunami."

Indeed, Ehrlich lost the governorship on the same day his Republican Party lost control of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and suffered legislative defeats across the country.

"We got hit pretty hard with a tidal wave," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland. "We did what we could have done, and in fact, had we not run the campaign that we ran with a governor with a 50-some percent approval rating, it would have been much worse."

But the fact remains that 13 Republican governors were up for re-election on Tuesday, some in very Democratic states, and Ehrlich was the only one who lost.

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A Sun poll showed Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, was 15 percentage points ahead of Ehrlich a year before the election, well before national momentum for Democrats was evident. Later polls showed that Ehrlich steadily ate into O'Malley's lead even as the national mood turned against the Republican Party.

Surveys in the last week of the election showed the race to be a virtual tie, and it appeared possible that Maryland might buck the national trend against Republicans. But Democrats say they mounted a superior get-out-the-vote effort to topple Ehrlich and defeat Senate candidate Michael S. Steele, the Republican lieutenant governor. With those two dynamic political leaders now defeated, the Republicans' threadbare status is newly apparent.

Democratic legislators did routinely crush Ehrlich's legislative agenda and enact their own over his objections, particularly on slot machine gambling, utility regulation and medical malpractice reform. But plenty of other governors have found success in states dominated by the other party.

Democrat Mark Warner's accomplishments in Republican-controlled Virginia were so popular that he was able to sweep his chosen successor into office.

Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose initiatives suffered crushing defeats a year ago, shook up his staff, changed tactics and cruised to re-election last week.

And very Democratic Massachusetts has had a string of Republican governors, culminating in Mitt Romney, the departing incumbent, whose success in passing a universal health coverage plan, praised by liberals and conservatives alike, is helping him launch a presidential bid.

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The common thread among them is that they have tackled their states' biggest issues and done it by aggressively seeking compromise with their political enemies.

"It was never easy," said Ellen Qualls, who was Warner's communications director. "It is not a natural state of things."

Early in his term, Warner failed to bring his transportation agenda directly to voters through referenda.

But when the state faced a financial crisis, Warner crafted a plan to overhaul the state's tax structure, raising some levies and lowering others. His key to success was winning over the Republicans who controlled the legislature, Qualls said.

"I'm sure he talked to the Republican Senate finance chairman 10 times a day," Qualls said. "... if you can form that alliance on certain issues and hold it together, you can get things done."

When Ehrlich did that on occasion, he was successful.

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In his first year, he agreed to compromises on a charter schools bill. In his second, he agreed to Democrats' demand septic systems be included in the so-called "flush tax," and as a result, he was able to enact the centerpiece of his environmental agenda, a program to reduce the flow of sewage into the Chesapeake Bay.

But Democrats believe Ehrlich never made a serious effort at finding more opportunities to compromise. Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee, said the governor believed that feuding with the Assembly gave him a bigger political boost than reaching deals would have done.

"I think that politically, they felt that if they could continue to do that, they would stay on top by just trying to play both ends against the middle, as opposed to sitting down and coming up with a moderate agenda and working through it," Middleton said.

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said the conflict between Ehrlich's political and policy goals fed on itself. Two years before the election, the Republican Party began a campaign to defeat Jimeno and two other conservative Democratic senators from Anne Arundel. The effort immediately sapped the interest of the three targeted lawmakers in working with the governor, Jimeno said.

"I tried to work with him. I really tried," Jimeno said. "But it seemed like they were more interested in November 2006 than they were in governing."

Ehrlich divorced himself from the legislature's negotiations on hot-button issues and vetoed bills when the product didn't meet his specifications. The pattern was most evident in the two special sessions he called on medical malpractice insurance and electric rates. In both cases, he vetoed the legislature's solutions in what he said were stands on principle.

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Particularly later in his term, Ehrlich lost control of the agenda in Annapolis and found himself standing up to the General Assembly on issues where polling showed that the legislature was taking the side of most Marylanders. Two notable cases were the so-called Wal-Mart bill, which forced the retailer to pay more for employee health care, and an increase in the minimum wage.

Republicans tend to lionize him for those stands, believing they were the governor's strongest case for re-election.

"The guy did everything he possibly could," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican. "He held his ground on issues of principle, like the Wal-Mart bill and the tort reform bill, and I think those were winning issues for him."

Ehrlich acknowledged on WBAL that voters thought differently.

"This is a pretty far left state now," Ehrlich said. "That's what the people voted for, so you just have to deal with it and accept it and go on."

andy.green@baltsun.com



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