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July 24, 2006

A Big Political Week

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The last two weeks have been big politically for Gov. Bob Ehrlich, including what might be considered the fabled "banner" week. The media is poll crazy right now, with every week seeming to yield a new result. The most anticipated are the non-partisan, unbiased polls.

Democrat gubernatorial candidate and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has enjoyed a comfortable polling lead in most of the big voter preference surveys. The leads have shifted between 20% and 14%, but have remained in the double digits. No surprise for most folks knowledgeable in Maryland political lure, as they already know about the 2-1 Democrat-to-Republican registration advantage.

So, the poll news this week was stunning for the governor and the state Republicans. According to the latest poll, Governor Ehrlich has narrowed the O'Malley lead to 9%, the first single-digit result so far.

The spin jockeys were so very busy putting their own unique perspective on the outcome. The Democrats claimed the result is meaningless, as the election is still so far off that most voters aren't really paying attention. Wonder if they'd have said the same thing if Mayor O'Malley had widened the lead over Governor Ehrlich. Probably not.

Republicans were crowing, pointing to the narrowing lead in the absence of Doug Duncan's candidacy as evidence of a weaker-than-first-thought O'Malley/Brown ticket. In fact, it is too early for polling to mean much, but having Governor Ehrlich narrowing the lead does indicate previously unforeseen strength in the incumbent's electability.

First, Governor Ehrlich unveiled his lieutenant governor choice, Kris Cox. All of the reviews have been positive, even the BS (Baltimore's Sun) had to acknowledge her professional experience and incredible life story.

It must kill Terry Lierman, the state Democratic Party chair, to have to watch what he says about Ms. Cox. He'd love to attack her lack of political experience, but she offsets that with hands-on disability advocacy experience at the state and federal level. It's very tough to criticize her without sounding petty.

Second, the governor enjoyed an affirming decision from the federal bench. The Fair Share Health Plan, more commonly known as the Wal-Mart Bill, was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge on the grounds that it would supercede federal law.

Of course, this argument was offered on the floor of the House of Delegates and the Senate. Republicans had carefully researched state and federal law, and working in conjunction with the governor's staff, had identified inherent conflict with the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Democrat leaders heard the Republican grumbling, and sought out an opinion from Attorney General Joe Curran. Mr. Curran effectively enabled the Democrats by denying that any conflict existed.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz had a different opinion, though. After hearing arguments from Curran's lawyers, contrasted with legal arguments from the Retail Industry Leaders Association, Judge Motz held that the provisions of the bill that singled out and punished Wal-Mart were unconstitutional.

Now the state Democratic Party and organized labor are forced to try to find some redeeming quality from an extended debate that served no real purpose. The tremendous waste of time and energy is now viewed for what it was, a politically motivated attack on a traditionally anti-union employer.

Third, Governor Ehrlich celebrated a small, but no less important, victory against the paralyzing street crime that plaques Baltimore City. Note the mention of the governor, not the mayor!

Governor Ehrlich has pushed a strong witness intimidation bill for two of the last three years. His fight was mostly with the trial lawyers, more intent on protecting their business than they were on protecting victims of crime and witnesses too terrified to testify against career criminals.

While Mayor O'Malley was busy fighting with or firing police commissioners, or trying to explain ham-handed arrest tactics, Governor Ehrlich was working with prosecutors around the state to craft language to prevent witness intimidation.

In a stunning victory on July 19, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge permitted the admission of hearsay evidence against a notorious Baltimore City murderer and drug dealer, Tyrone Beane, pursuant to the forfeiture by wrongdoing provision of the governor's witness intimidation law.

Finally, as if the other victories weren't enough to celebrate, two residents of Queen Anne's County brought a suit challenging the constitutionality of the Early Voting law.

Once again, Democrats were depending on the advice of their chief enabler, Attorney General Joe Curran. If his recent record is any indication, and considering the fact that the case was brought by legally registered voters on the conservative Eastern Shore, it is highly likely that once again, ol' Joe's advice may come up short.

I hope it does, anyway. County elections office personnel from around the state share the Republican view that these changes are neither warranted nor necessary. The whole purpose behind this bill, in spite of the lofty rhetoric, is to guaranty an O'Malley win in November.

If this little legislative overreach is also rejected, then Governor Ehrlich will have scored a major political victory. The House and Senate Republican Caucus have already been victorious because they identified these problems long before the judiciary got involved.

All of these legal and policy outcomes followed the poll that showed Governor Ehrlich closing the gap on Mayor O'Malley. If this trend continues, and once the governor starts to campaign in earnest, it is highly likely that we'll see a toss-up come November 7. That's what a big political week can do for a campaign!

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
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