Ehrlich campaign robocalls could provide ammo for Democrats

The Ehrlich campaign's alleged effort to keep blacks from voting last November could have the opposite effect for years to come, according to political observers who said indictments over the automated phone calls would become election-season fodder for Democrats.

Tantalizing details suggesting an organized strategy of black voter suppression emerged Thursday when Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's campaign manager and political consultant were charged with violating election laws.

The details filled out a narrative that the Democratic Party went to great pains in November to promote: Maryland Republicans are dirty tricksters. At a news conference then, top officials, including Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, rehashed a series of election episodes such as busloads of homeless Philadelphians being recruited to hand out misleading campaign fliers in 2006.

The robocalls and ensuing court case against Paul Schurick and Julius Henson will be added to that list, several predicted.

"It will be a turnout tool," predicted Steve Raabe, the President of OpinionWorks, a Maryland polling firm. "It will be a rallying cry in the African-American community."

Political observers said details of the case — such as an Ehrlich campaign memo that uses the words "voter suppression," according to court papers — will deepen distrust between black voters and Republicans. And it will give African-Americans more reason to vote.

Among the other details: A campaign memo titled "The Schurick Doctrine" and apparently named after Ehrlich's campaign manager outlined a strategy to promote "confusion, emotionalism, and frustration among African-American Democrats," according to court papers.

The memo targeted 472 precincts for "voter suppression" operations as Ehrlich sought to unseat Gov. Martin O'Malley. It was presented to top Ehrlich campaign staffers over the summer and rejected because of cost, according to court papers.

But state prosecutors allege that part of the program was revived on Election Day as Ehrlich slipped in unofficial exit polls, and a hastily recorded robocall was sent to more than 112,000 voters in Prince George's County and Baltimore.

The call told voters to "relax" because O'Malley had already won. "The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight," the caller said. In fact, polling places were still open.

Reaction in Baltimore was swift and angry Friday, said radio talk-show host Larry Young, who spent two hours discussing the indictments on the air.

"[Henson] was trying to play them," Young said, describing why his mostly African-American listeners were upset by details of the indictments.

There's some evidence, though, that the incident and its aftermath could make voters skeptical of all politicians.

Edith Curry, a black voter in Baltimore County, said she considers the whole matter "vulgar" and will be "cautious" before voting for anyone — regardless of party.

Thomas Young, a black voter in Prince George's County, said details from the indictment reinforce his view that each candidate must be assessed on his or her own strengths. "I want to deal more with the individual" and not the party, he said.

And some African-Americans complained that state and federal officials seemed to be tripping over themselves to condemn the robocalls.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the notion that blacks would be fooled by the calls "is getting close to being offensive."

Davis described the calls as "sophomoric." All the attention given to the matter — with state, federal and congressional probes announced — feels "almost paternalistic," he said.

"I think we're going over the top with all of this. Politics is a rough-and-tumble sport." Davis said, while stressing that he does not condone the robocalls or plans described in the indictment.

But he pointed to the results: Ehrlich lost to O'Malley by more than 14 percentage points. In Prince George's County, 27,000 more people voted for O'Malley in 2010 than in 2006.

"I think we need to maintain perspective and respect the intelligence of the so-called victims," Davis said.

Some voters agreed. Charles Yates of Westminster, an African-American lawyer, said the sloppiness of the calls insulted him.

"It confirms that there are people who have this racist view that black people are idiots," he said. The call's script was so simplistic and so easy to identify as a fraud that it was "like a joke."