The lessons of divided government

Elected Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. returned to Annapolis planning to trade on the personal relationships he had developed in his eight years as a minority delegate in the Democratic-dominated General Assembly.

He would see those plans foiled by the reality of divided government. Democratic leaders stymied Ehrlich on slots, medical malpractice and other key priorities. By his third year in office, Ehrlich had grown so frustrated that he departed from his prepared State of the State address to lecture lawmakers about the need for "respect," a word he uttered more than a dozen times in six minutes.

Now Ehrlich is campaigning to win back the job he lost four years ago — and another term sparring with House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and a legislature expected to remain overwhelmingly Democratic. But while both sides acknowledge the acrimony that developed during Ehrlich's first term, there is no indication that either would approach relations any differently.

Asked how he would deal with the legislative leaders if elected to another term, Ehrlich delivers a punch line: "Beat Busch and medicate Miller."

When the laughter subsides, he talks about his expectations of the 188-member legislative body. He says lawmakers might treat him better if he defeats Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley. He appears to be holding fast to his own approach, which his supporters say shows his integrity.

"I don't invite the clashes," Ehrlich said recently. "But if we engage in gratuitous, discretionary Wal-Mart taxes and millionaires' taxes and tech taxes," — referring to controversies from his and O'Malley's administrations — "we will clash, I assure you."

A Republican breeze

Ehrlich believes the political wind is at his back not just for the Nov. 2 election, but also for a four-year term as governor. He says the waning popularity of President Barack Obama and the lingering effects of the national recession should encourage lawmakers to be more open-minded about his ideas.

"The tenor of the country, and the tenor of the General Assembly will be more moderate," Ehrlich predicted.

But Busch says Ehrlich should look inward if he wants to make progress on his priorities.

"If he wins the election and comes into the General Assembly, which is still going to be majority-Democrat, he's going to have to be able to sell his agenda," Busch said. "To be successful, he's going to have to create some compromises. That's the basis of politics, and he couldn't do it."

Recalling Ehrlich's term, Republican Del. Christopher B. Shank said Democrats "were in a state of denial" about having a Republican governor.

"The mentality was, it would be a short-term thing, and they weren't going to cooperate because this was all basically a bad dream," said Shank, the Republican House whip, who now is running unopposed for the state Senate. "They were going to make sure he would fail."

Ehrlich can count some successes with the legislature. They found common ground on funding to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, building the Intercounty Connector highway, charter schools and more. Lawmakers praised him for his mix of judicial appointments and his interest in the state's historically black universities.

"On noneconomic issues," Ehrlich said, "we could get a lot done. On economic issues, we were going to clash repeatedly."

Given the strong authority granted to the governor in the Maryland Constitution, Ehrlich was able to dominate the budgeting process. And with the legislative session limited to 90 days, he had the state's political spotlight largely to himself for most of the year.

Ehrlich was no newcomer to Annapolis when he moved into the governor's mansion in 2003. He entered the legislature as a delegate from Baltimore County in 1987, the same year as Busch. Though from opposite parties, the two became friends, bonding over a shared love of athletics and serving together on the House Judiciary Committee. Party lines were blurry then, Ehrlich says, and the atmosphere laid-back.

Memories of that time — when Ehrlich met his wife, Kendel Sibiski, an Anne Arundel public defender, and played Thursday night basketball with lawmakers — helped prompt him to run for governor in the first place.

But "my biggest mistake" as governor, he said recently, "was thinking I could replicate my experience as a delegate."

Ehrlich said that "Annapolis had undergone a fundamental change" since he departed in 1995 for Congress.

When he returned as governor, he said, "it was more like Capitol Hill" — the collegial atmosphere replaced by party-line voting and sniping.

Busch, in a recent interview, said it was Ehrlich, who had been elected to Congress in the Republican wave led by Newt Gingrich and the "Contract for America," who had become more "Washington."

By both of their accounts, the old friends became bitter foes during the Ehrlich administration. Busch, as the newly elected Speaker of the House, felt that he had to protect his Democratic caucus from Republican advances. Ehrlich's win had energized the GOP, Busch said, and the party sought 25 more seats in the House and five more in the Senate in the next election. That would not have given the Republicans control of either chamber, but it would have denied Democrats their veto-proof majorities.

Busch was particularly sensitive to the threat; he was elected speaker after a Republican House challenger unseated Democratic Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. in 2002.

This year, despite Ehrlich's punch line, Busch appears to be in little danger of losing. The Anne Arundel County Democrat would need to come in fourth in his three-member district to be unseated; he was the top vote-getter there four years ago.

Common, uncommon ground

Ehrlich seemed to have a better rapport with Miller than with Busch, in part because Miller shared his support for slots. But Miller said Ehrlich's choices to fill top agency positions and his treatment of workers whom his administration believed to be overly Democratic "left wounds." The General Assembly conducted an investigation of those firings, a probe that Republicans called purely political.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, who was Senate minority leader at the time and did not seek re-election this year, said both Miller and Busch "played pretty rough" with Ehrlich.

"There's no doubt in my mind that there was a concerted effort to keep his initiatives from passing," Stoltzfus said.

Democrats say Ehrlich was unwilling to compromise when he was governor — as evidenced, they say, by his rejection of their idea to put his slots bill to voters in a referendum. O'Malley sponsored just such a referendum, and it passed.

Ehrlich summoned lawmakers for two special sessions, one to reform medical malpractice rules and one to design ratepayer relief for Constellation Energy customers. Both times, Ehrlich ended up vetoing the bills they produced.

Ehrlich issued about 100 vetoes, according to an aide; lawmakers overrode 41 of them — a record. Under the previous three governors, the legislature overrode just one.

Stoltzfus says Ehrlich shares at least some of the blame for his rocky ride in Annapolis.

"He wasn't perfect," he said. "He could have been a bit more congenial in some things."

And not just with Democrats, Stoltzfus says. He described Ehrlich's relationship with Republican lawmakers as "mixed."

"I thought he could have done a little better working with us," he said. "There was great anticipation there would be an open door and a lot of communication with a Republican governor in office. In reality, maybe our expectations could not be achieved. Maybe the job was too time-consuming."

Stoltzfus and Shank both said their party learned from the rare experience of serving with a Republican governor — the first since Spiro Agnew.

"We had really only played offense," Shank said. "I hope we learned — Democrats and Republicans — that it's time to roll up our sleeves and realize problems will not be solved by jockeying for political gain."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/bykowicz

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°