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May 27, 2005

Down The Primrose Path

Chris Charuhas

I’m looking forward to the fall of 2006, when voters in our state will likely elect a governor who will let Maryland be Maryland again.

Robert Ehrlich squeaked out a win over weak competition during the last gubernatorial campaign, but this time around his opponent is much stronger. I’m looking forward to a Martin O’Malley victory, because it means that we Marylanders exchanged barbaric politics for civilized debate.

During the Age of Exploration, Europeans colonized most of the world. In places where they settled down to live long-term, such as Maryland and Massachusetts, society became civilized. Participatory government was established, small farms flourished, manufacturing thrived, and a strong middle class ran things for the benefit of all.

In places where Europeans aimed to turn a quick buck and leave, such as Mississippi, El Salvador, and South Carolina, society became feudal and backward. Corrupt government was installed, a few planters exploited vast tracts of land, manufacturing languished, and rich folks kept almost everyone else poor.

The Deep South has yet to completely shake off this legacy of exploitation. In states such as Texas and Alabama, low-wage jobs are prevalent, just like they were in sharecropping days. School performance is among the nation’s worst, just like it was before integration. Superstition still holds sway among millions, just like it did during the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.

The former “exploitation” colonies of the Deep South are still the most backward part of our country, and it’s no coincidence that these states comprise the base of Mr. Ehrlich’s party. There, privileged elites still lie and cheat to protect their position.

To create a “good business climate” (read “high profits for people who run/invest in old industries”) in these states, business regulation is weak. Consequently, new business growth is stunted by rigged markets, and the jobs that go there are mostly low-wage.

To allow the wealthy to dodge taxes in these states, selfish “it’s your money — don’t let the government take it!” tax-cut dogma is promoted. Consequently, schools are starved of the public investment they need to succeed.

To turn working-class voters against their natural political allies in these states, elites exploit fundamentalist ignorance and prejudice. Consequently, politics is dominated by lies, smears, and irrationality.

Contrast this with Maryland’s legacy of broad-based prosperity, educational excellence, and reasoned debate. In Maryland, unlike in the Deep South, business is regulated to encourage entrepreneurship and grow high-wage jobs. In Maryland, taxes are sufficient to support good schools. In Maryland, religious fundamentalism doesn’t play well, which has kept our politics focused on meaningful issues.

Unfortunately for Maryland, Mr. Ehrlich uses the political playbook that has worked so well for his party in the less-enlightened states of the Deep South:

Mr. Ehrlich has tried to pay off big business with public assets. First he tried to sell 800 acres of forest in St. Mary’s County at cut-rate prices to a politically-connected Baltimore developer. Later a Virginia developer asked to buy a 60-acre chunk of parkland in Charles County, which his administration then classified as “excess land” available for private purchase, despite the fact that Charles County wanted to buy it.

Mr. Ehrlich has tried to muzzle those who disagree with him. When Baltimore’s Sun uncovered the backroom deals described in the previous paragraph, he banned state employees from talking to a reporter and columnist at that paper. His longtime aide, Joseph Steffen, was behind the firing of dozens of state workers he suspected of opposing Ehrlich’s program. Recently, he had protesters threatened with arrest if they booed or held up signs opposing his veto of a health care bill.

Mr. Ehrlich has tried to smear political opponents. Mr. Steffen, who described himself as the “Prince of Darkness,” spread false rumors on Internet message boards about Mr. O’Malley having extramarital affairs. "Part of my unwritten job description is to hurt people," Mr. Steffen wrote. Recently, Ehrlich Administration employees dug-up five-year old emails about Mr. O’Malley’s family and gave them to reporters, in an attempt to blame the Mayor's wife for the rumors spread by Mr. Steffen.

Mr. Ehrlich has tried to exploit prejudice and ignorance for political gain. He recently vetoed a bill that would have granted same-gender couples the right to be treated as immediate family members during hospital visits and make health care decisions for their partners. He said he vetoed the bill because it threatened "the sanctity of traditional marriage." This is false. Massachusetts has had laws like this for some time now, and divorce rates there are lower than in the Deep South.

Mr. Ehrlich has tried to integrate gambling with government. For a third straight year, he has pitched slot machines as the answer to the state’s budget problems. As Garrison Keillor astutely described it, state-sponsored gambling is “a tax on people who aren’t good at math.” It’s no coincidence that gambling revenue often replaces fair taxation in states like Mississippi, where both education and wages are low.

Mr. Ehrlich has tried to turn Maryland into Mississippi. Mr. O’Malley, on the other hand, seems ready to jettison the current governor’s Banana Republic-style politics and govern our civilized state in an enlightened way.

I’m looking forward to an O’Malley victory in November 2006 because he aspires to let Maryland be Maryland again.

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