Just five months after losing his re-election bid, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is raising money to keep his campaign office open, to fund grass-roots political organizations and to "confront the ultra-liberal bosses in Annapolis."
Maryland's first Republican chief executive in a generation, Ehrlich does not say whether he is raising money for a rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley, who defeated him in November.
But he speaks to his supporters in an April 20 fundraising letter as if he were running a government in exile. Despite a pledge not to criticize O'Malley, Ehrlich blends harsh words about the current governor with a promise to "continue leading the thousands of Marylanders like you who have not given up on Maryland."
"We've come too far and made too much progress to simply turn our backs because of one unprecedented election," Ehrlich wrote.
The former governor declined a request for an interview about the fundraising letter, but his spokesman, Henry Fawell, confirmed its legitimacy. Fawell said it does not indicate whether Ehrlich intends to run for office again.
"It's just for communication purposes," Fawell said. "The governor obviously built up a huge political network over the years, and they are engaged on state issues and national issues, and it costs money to communicate with them."
Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said that if the letter is indicative of what Ehrlich wants to communicate, the people of Maryland have had enough of it.
"People are just tired of the overblown rhetoric that this letter represents," Lierman said. "We just had probably the most civil and productive legislative session in years in Maryland, and it was precisely because the rhetoric was toned down. People want deeds and not words."
Despite the general reduction in the tension level in Annapolis now that the Democrats dominate all branches of government, Ehrlich's letter comes at an uneasy time in state politics.
Maryland faces a budget shortfall of as much as $1.5 billion next year (notwithstanding Ehrlich's claim in his letter to have "reversed the fiscal disaster the state was facing"), and state leaders are girding for a divisive debate in the coming months over spending cuts, tax increases and slot machine gambling as they seek ways to close the gap.
Leading Republicans say they believe a public reaction against a Democrat-backed tax package could provide the opening for a strong GOP challenge to O'Malley in 2010.
Ehrlich was the only incumbent governor in the country to lose re-election last year, but he left office with high personal popularity ratings.
Since then, the former governor has kept a high public profile. Besides his day job as head of a new Maryland branch of a North Carolina law firm, Ehrlich has taken on a weekly radio show, a role in former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's presidential campaign, public appearances and a plan to write a book.
Through it all, Ehrlich publicly insisted he would not criticize O'Malley, saying on his radio show that to do so is "not class." But that promise apparently does not extend to direct-mail fundraising.
In the letter, Ehrlich sharply criticizes O'Malley for wanting to raise the tobacco tax, the gas tax, the sales tax and the income tax (O'Malley has not proposed any of those), pushing to give illegal immigrants in-state tuition at colleges and universities, and breaking his campaign promise on education funding.
"The new administration in Annapolis doesn't agree with our philosophy that government should empower people and businesses to do what's right," Ehrlich writes in the letter. "Instead, it believes government should be bigger and more intrusive in our everyday lives. In just eight weeks, this new regime has taken a page right out of the [former Gov.] Parris Glendening playbook and reminded us of the consequences of one-party rule in Annapolis."
Fawell did not acknowledge the criticism in the letter and said Ehrlich is keeping his promise not to attack O'Malley.
"Governor Ehrlich has gone to great lengths to avoid voicing criticism of the current administration," Fawell said.
Not so, says Democratic Party chief Lierman.
"If I remember correctly, when he left office he said he was going to be 'classy' about politics after he was defeated," Lierman said. "Like many of his other promises, that lasted only three months."
There's not much precedent in Maryland to suggest how defeated ex-governors should act. The last one to be denied a second term was Gov. William Preston Lane Jr., who left office in 1951, before Ehrlich was born.
Kevin Igoe, a GOP consultant, said it's too early to read much into Ehrlich's decision to raise money, other than that he wants to stay involved in the debate over public policy and present an alternative to O'Malley on taxes and other issues. The money could be useful even if Ehrlich decides not to run for office again, Igoe said.
"It gives you more ability to move around, to travel, to put out direct mail to activist types who will write the letters to the editor and stuff like that," Igoe said.
Ross Goldstein, chief deputy administrator at the state Board of Elections, said the law allows candidates to keep their accounts open after a loss to test the waters for another run. Accounts must be closed if a former candidate does not run for office after eight years, Goldstein said.
In his most recent campaign finance report, filed in January, Ehrlich said he had about $250,000 left in his account. Any money Ehrlich raises through the current solicitation could be used only to seek state office, not in a race for U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives.
Jeff Beauchamp, the station manager at WBAL-AM, the station that broadcasts the weekly radio show Ehrlich hosts with his wife, Kendel, said Ehrlich's political activity poses no conflict with Federal Communications Commission rules. The requirement to provide equal time to other candidates would apply only if Ehrlich filed for office, Beauchamp said.
Beauchamp said he did not know that the former governor was raising money but that he wasn't surprised or bothered by it. When the station hired him for the show, Ehrlich stressed that his political life was not over, Beauchamp said.
"He made it clear that there were a number of options he was pursuing, and he wanted to get a sense of what those offices might be and who might be retiring or what the situation was," Beauchamp said. "He really left his options open, and we had no reservations about that. We knew full well he would someday seek office again, and we would deal with that when the time came."
See the fundraising letter and find an analysis of Ehrlich's claims at baltimoresun.com/ehrlich.