Democrats in Maryland, worried about a punishing election-year climate, want voters thinking of something more damning than "incumbent" when they go to the polls.
Their preferred enemy: the lobbyist.
The strategy became clear last week when former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. confirmed that he wants to unseat Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley. The message from O'Malley's campaign: Voters will have a choice between a sitting governor who made tough decisions in a down economy and an ousted opponent turned high-priced lobbyist for corporate interests.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he has seen a similar tactic deployed across the country because "the word 'lobbyist' is poisonous with the voters."
"The very idea of it conjures up special favors and bribery and dirty tricks," he said. "It's not a fair image, obviously, but try convincing voters of that."
But there's a flaw in the Democrats' argument. Ehrlich is not exactly a lobbyist.
Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, the North Carolina law firm that has employed him for three years, lists Ehrlich as a government affairs specialist - typically a fancy way of saying lobbyist - and says on its Web site that his Maryland team "has the access to ensure that our clients' interests are represented in legislative debates at the state, local and federal levels."
Ehrlich is not registered as a lobbyist at the state or federal levels, however, and said he does not meet with his former colleagues in Congress or the State House to push legislation. None of the 21 other employees in Womble's Baltimore office lobbies either, he said.
Instead, Ehrlich calls himself a "rainmaker" hired to be "the face of the firm." His daily duties, he said, include "speeches, coffees, dinners, lunches, meetings."
He has not disclosed his earnings, which registered lobbyists in Annapolis and Washington are required to do under disclosure laws.
Henry Fawell, Ehrlich's longtime spokesman who works with him at Womble, said the former governor's job is to "utilize his network of contacts in the private sector to bring new clients to the firm." In other words, Fawell said, after Ehrlich gets a client in the door, another Womble employee - typically someone based in Washington - takes over the account.
A "sample client list" for the Baltimore office, provided by Fawell, includes medical companies, banks and builders. Among them: A&G; Pharmaceutical, Precision Antibodies, SunTrust Bank, Brown Advisory, Dustin Construction and Canam Steel Corp. Citing attorney-client privilege, Ehrlich and others in the office have declined to describe the nature of the work.
Baltimore developer David S. Cordish hired Womble last year to help with community relations as he pushed for a state license and local zoning to build a casino in Anne Arundel County, but Ehrlich said he did not work on the project and the relationship is now over. Womble was also retained to work with BAA Maryland, which manages concessions at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
To call Ehrlich a "big-spending politician turned special-interest lobbyist," as O'Malley campaign manager Tom Russell did last week when the former governor said he is running, "is not just wrong, it's willfully misleading," Fawell said.
Travis Tazelaar, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, acknowledges he has no evidence that Ehrlich has been lobbying, but argued that "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's gotta be a duck." He called Ehrlich's description of his work at Womble "murky" and "shady."
Added Isaac Salazar, the state Democratic Party's spokesman: "Ehrlich was a member of Congress. There are lots of phone calls he can make. It's hard to believe his activity stopped once a client came in the door."
"If he would answer our questions and tell us what's going on, maybe we wouldn't have any reason to call him a lobbyist," Tazelaar said.
Democrats are doing more than making polite inquiries.
Last week, the Maryland Democratic Party released what it said were the results of a poll of 400 Republican voters, testing arguments about Ehrlich's record and recent activities. The survey asked, for example, if voters' attitudes would change if they knew that "Bob Ehrlich has spent the last three years working as a lobbyist for state contractors, gaming interests and foreign governments like China." Thirty-one percent of Republicans surveyed said yes, according to the Democrats.
Party officials have also filed formal complaints about the intersection of Ehrlich's campaign, his work at Womble and his media appearances, including his weekly talk show on WBAL radio. Last week, they submitted to the FCC Ehrlich's on-air objections to new taxes on medical devices levied in the national health care reform bill. The Democrats called his words "payola," noting that Womble represents companies that manufacture the devices.
Fawell has said Ehrlich won't "dignify" such allegations with a response.
Party officials also have alleged that Ehrlich and his allies are violating state law by failing to register as lobbyists.
Scott Reed, a Republican strategist in Maryland who is not involved with Ehrlich's campaign, said the Democrats' complaints are not borne out by facts. "Until they can prove it, they're really just making ridiculous charges that are going to boomerang on them," he said.
Reed acknowledged that a lobbying badge could harm a political career. "Since the minute Ehrlich lost, he planned to one day return to politics," Reed said. "He was never going to do anything in his private life to jeopardize coming back into public life."
Ehrlich would have plenty of ammunition if he decides to push back. In Annapolis, the highest-paid lobbyists - those with the most access to lawmakers and whose voices are heard far more than average citizens - are Democrats.
"If the establishment wants to have this debate, what about the cozy relationships between lobbyists and the highest levels of state government?" Fawell said. "It's dangerous to throw stones if you're in a glass house."
David Carroll, a former Democratic fundraiser who lobbies in Annapolis on behalf of private companies, paused when asked about the Democratic strategy of trying to paint Ehrlich as a lobbyist. "It cuts both ways," he said, declining to elaborate.
The former House speaker, Casper R. Taylor Jr., is a high-priced lobbyist. He works with a former Prince George's County delegate turned lobbyist, Gary R. Alexander. O'Malley's former campaign manager and intergovernmental affairs chief, Josh White, became an Annapolis lobbyist early in O'Malley's term.
The list of lobbyists who used to work in the office of Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is long: from Gerard E. Evans and John R. Stierhoff to Timothy A. Perry and Hannah Powers, all former Miller aides turned top-earning lobbyists.
Even some Maryland lawmakers lobby. Registered congressional lobbyists include Baltimore Del. Maggie L. McIntosh for the Johns Hopkins University; Prince George's County Del. Gerron S. Levi for the AFL-CIO; Sen. James C. Rosapepe of Prince George's for a tax commission; and Montgomery Del. Heather R. Mizeur for health care corporations. All are Democrats.
Patrick J. Hogan, a lobbyist for the University System of Maryland and former Democratic senator from Montgomery County, said he doesn't think his work precludes him from running again - something he's not actively considering. Dennis F. Rasmussen, a former Democratic Baltimore County executive who became a successful Annapolis lobbyist, launched a bid for U.S. Senate in 2006. It went nowhere.
Republican strategists say Democrats were quick to introduce the lobbyist debate to the gubernatorial campaign because they are scared - despite O'Malley's popularity and a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage Democrats have over Republicans.
"The fact that they jumped out so ferociously shows their concerns about [Ehrlich's] viability as a candidate," Reed said. "All he has to do is ask if we're better off today than they were four years ago. O'Malley's team knows they're vulnerable on that, and so they're trying to change the subject."
Sabato said candidates across the country have been tripped up over their backgrounds as lobbyists.
Dan Coats of Indiana, a former Republican congressman and senator, is running for the U.S. Senate seat that Democrat Evan Bayh recently announced he is vacating. But Coats is "getting hammered" by Democrats and Republican primary challengers alike for his 12 years as an influential Washington lobbyist, Sabato said.
The 2003 Mississippi gubernatorial race pitted then-incumbent Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, against Haley Barbour, past chairman of the Republican National Committee and a Washington lobbyist whose clients included the tobacco industry.
"There was a solid three-week period of nothing but negative ads about him being a Washington lobbyist," said Henry Barbour, Haley Barbour's campaign manager and nephew. "It fell flat. The election turned more on the former governor's record than his rhetoric."
Barbour defeated Musgrove by 7 percentage points and won re-election in 2007.