Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. launched his campaign to reclaim the job of Maryland governor on Wednesday, promising to balance the state budget without "gimmicks" and roll back a sales-tax increase enacted soon after he left office.
Speaking to hundreds of enthusiastic supporters not far from the Arbutus rowhouse where he was raised, Ehrlich, a Republican, portrayed his single term that ended in 2007 as an era of economic growth and fiscal restraint that was undercut by Martin O'Malley, the Democrat who defeated him.
"They spent beyond our means, and we spend within our budget," Ehrlich said. "They kill jobs. We help create them. They whine, and we lead."
Ehrlich's remarks at the Dewey Loman American Legion hall in Baltimore County's Halethorpe neighborhood -- where he was introduced by former Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover and lauded by friends waving signs reading "Ehrlich Again in 2010" -- indicated that the rematch with O'Malley will center on pocketbook issues.
The 52-year-old former governor appealed to small-business owners, calling them "a source of job creation, not revenue enhancement." He lambasted what he called a "historic" increase in the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent under O'Malley, part of a Democratic plan to permanently balance the state's budget that they now say was foiled by a souring economy.
"Today, we begin to roll back the 20-percent increase in the Maryland sales tax," Ehrlich pledged at a morning event in Montgomery County.
O'Malley and his allies countered immediately, signifying that the race for governor was fully engaged from the outset.
In a media appearance he scheduled soon after Ehrlich's first stop, O'Malley tried to quash the notion that he could fall victim to a national anti-incumbent movement this year.
"One would think that factor would be a bit of a wash, given the fact that the former governor was himself an incumbent," he said. "One who raised college tuitions more than any other governor in modern times. One who raised about $3 billion in fees and other taxes, including the property tax."
Wednesday also saw the first election advertisement -- an anti-Ehrlich radio spot sponsored by Citizens for Strength and Security, a left-leaning group based in Washington, calling Ehrlich a lobbyist who caters to large corporations and said that he, unlike O'Malley, does not care about the middle class.
Bruce E. Mentzer, a Towson-based Republican media consultant, said the radio spot was "meant as a nuisance, to irritate the Ehrlich folks, to let them know someone going to dog him the whole way along."
Incumbent candidates this year are wise "to get out there early and start the messaging," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College who has worked for Democrats. Smith called O'Malley a strong campaigner who is seeking re-election amid a "national context that it's a bad year to be an incumbent."
Elected in 2002 as the first Republican governor in nearly 40 years, Ehrlich led an administration marked by an unsuccessful battle to bring slot machines to Maryland, as well as a major sewage clean-up initiative to protect the Chesapeake Bay that came to be known as the "flush tax." His supporters note that he left behind a significant budget surplus, although the money needed to be spent immediately because of a persistent gap between revenues and expenses that neither he nor O'Malley has fully addressed.
O'Malley has struggled for much of his term to balance the budget through cuts, employee furloughs and other maneuvers, including federal stimulus money and fund transfers.
Ehrlich criticized those efforts on Wednesday, saying he would fix the state's $2 billion structural deficit with "no gimmicks." He called O'Malley's moves "Band-Aid solutions," but did not outline alternative ideas.
A one-cent reduction in the sales tax would remove $600 million from state accounts, and Ehrlich did not say how he would make up for the loss, although the did repeat in a television interview a Reagan-era trickle-down economic theory, saying "when you tax something more, you get less of it." Later in the day, he said "those details will unfold" during the campaign.
Ehrlich largely avoided questions from reporters at his campaign events, taking none at a morning appearance in Rockville designed to illustrate the importance of voters in the Washington suburbs, and 90 seconds' worth in the evening.
He did schedule two broadcast media appearances Wednesday. During an afternoon appearance on a WBAL radio show hosted by ally and Democratic former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, Ehrlich said he wants "a very spirited debate, a series of debates" with O'Malley.
He said he preferred preferring a "free-wheeling" approach without a moderator, a response to an O'Malley offer this week to debate Ehrlich in a traditional format on Ehrlich's own WBAL radio show this Saturday. The two campaigns could not agree on terms.
Some points to discuss, Ehrlich said, would be whether capital punishment remains in effect in Maryland. O'Malley, a death-penalty opponent, has not signed an execution warrant in the past four years, whereas two executions took place under Ehrlich's watch.
The former governor also said he wants to ask the current governor how he plans to pay for Medicaid expansion required under national health care reform.
Ehrlich's wife and radio co-host, Kendel Ehrlich, accompanied him throughout the day, and he credited her with convincing him to run again. Their boys, Drew, 10, and Josh, 6, joined them in Halethorpe.
A graduate of the Gilman School and Princeton University, where he was a captain of the football team, Ehrlich was a three-term state delegate from Baltimore County who spent eight years in Congress before deciding to take on Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend in 2002. Repeatedly thwarted by a Democrat-controlled legislature in Annapolis, Ehrlich said Wednesday that he was still willing to fight what he called an "arrogant monopoly" in the capital.
On philosophical issues, "you go right to the people," Ehrlich told a caller on the Mitchell show. "Sometimes I lost, sometimes I won, but I'm always competing."
In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2-1, Ehrlich expressed confidence that he could appeal to both independent voters in places such as Montgomery, as well as followers of the Tea Party movement who are generally disgusted by veteran politicians and the direction state and national governments are heading.
"He's 100-percent Tea Party," said Marilyn Ochs, a Bethesda resident, at the morning Rockville event, praising Ehrlich for his commitment to adhere to the Constitution and lower taxes. "I trust him."
In 2006, Ehrlich carried 18 of Maryland's 23 counties and boasted of approval ratings above 50 percent, but still lost to O'Malley. His allies have been steadfast ever since, following him on his radio show. Ehrlich has also worked as a self-proclaimed "rain-maker" for the Baltimore office Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, a North Carolina law firm with corporate clients that include banks and medical companies.
Judy Henderson of Ellicott City said her concern about taxes and the economy brought her to the Halethorpe rally. "I'm going to retire soon and I don't know if I can afford to stay here," Henderson said. "I think he'll change the tax rate. I think we're supporting everybody but our local community."
George Dodson, a retired Baltimore City firefighter who identified himself as a Democrat but said he voted for Ehrlich in 2006, said "I just liked Mr. Ehrlich when he was governor. When he says something, it's not double-talk." But Dodson wasn't blaming O'Malley for the state's economic troubles, and said whoever wins has "a rough road to go."
His wife, Kathy Dodson, said she voted for Ehrlich twice before.
"I do think he's very honest, very hometown," she said. "I've never seen him act arrogant. He just seems very down to earth."
Baltimore Sun reporters Arthur Hirsch and Annie Linskey contributed to this article.
Ehrlich will continue his campaign announcement week with stops Thursday in Western Maryland and Friday on the Eastern Shore, his campaign spokesman said.