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November 13, 2006

Mopping Up the Debris

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

As of last Wednesday, you no longer have to fear that blinking light on the answering machine; the political robo-calls are finished - for now. A weekend ago, I spoke with Rudy Giuliani, Laura Bush, Bob Ehrlich, Kendal Ehrlich, and Michael Steele.

Not really, I just talk over their recording so I can say we had a conversation. Likewise, the trip to the mailbox is no longer filled with the dread of discovering a slew of competing political propaganda.

It's all over but the crying, and there are plenty of sniffles to go around. The one undeniable fact of the 2006 mid-term election is that the ill will of the American people towards the war in Iraq and the Bush Administration was felt up and down the ballot.

At the national level, the Democrats will now control both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Nancy Pelosi (D., CA) will serve as the Speaker of the House, and will fulfill her constitutional role as second in the line of succession to the presidency. Harry Reid (D., NV) finds himself trading in his minority leader's office for the more spacious leader's suite in the Senate wing of the Capitol.

In his first response to the shift in congressional power, President George W. Bush accepted the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Robert Gates, a respected business executive, former CIA director, and White House intelligence and national security expert, steps in to implement the findings of the Iraq Study Group chaired by his good friend, former Secretary of State James A. Baker.

Recounts, first thought to be almost guaranteed by close election outcomes, now seem to be less likely. It would appear that even the self-obsessed politicians understand that Americans want this to be over, and calling for recounts that are unlikely to change results flies in the face of that sentiment.

Here in Maryland Ben Cardin won the Senate seat being vacated by Paul Sarbanes, beating Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele by more than the total number of returned absentee ballots. Mr. Cardin was very successful in aligning Mr. Steele with the Bush Administration, and that may well have been the campaign death sentence.

Rumors abound regarding Lieutenant Governor Steele's future. CNN has run reports indicating that he may be tapped by the president to run the Republican National Committee or to head the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In Maryland, Gov. Bob Ehrlich's dream to serve another four-year term ended in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, as it became apparent that the absentee balloting couldn't overturn the election results.

By almost every single objective governance measure, Bob Ehrlich has been a successful governor. In spite of complaints about cuts to popular programs in 2003, 2004, and even 2005, the governor took a $4 billion dollar deficit in state spending and produced a $2 billion dollar surplus through careful management and belt-tightening.

Voters either forgot or didn't care to remember that the Democrat solution to this problem was a $2 billion tax increase, introduced by House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch. While the budget management was important, the more significant accomplishment was the overall job-creation environment facilitated by the Ehrlich Administration.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs, mostly high tech and bio-tech, will be created in Maryland thanks to the welcoming and facilitated climate created by the Ehrlich team. The attitude of state business development professionals, led by Governor Ehrlich, towards the federal military Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC), was to aggressively pursue federal sector jobs and opportunities. In past years, Maryland's strategy was to build a strong defense, trying to retain existing jobs.

Bob Ehrlich saw an opportunity to jettison some older technologies and processes in the interest of jobs of the future. In a lasting legacy to his vision, Maryland will be gaining thousands of high-paying jobs directly because of the aggressive recruitment strategy he created.

I will surely miss my relationship with this amazing man. Even more important, Frederick County will suffer from losing a "red" governor who cares about "red" county residents. No matter how you cut it, Governor-elect Martin O'Malley won't be as connected to Frederick. Governor Ehrlich spent more time in this county than any governor in recent history. That was not an accident!

The O'Malley/Brown Administration begins in earnest in January, but the work starts now. Baltimore's Mayor O'Malley has appointed his lieutenant governor - Anthony Brown - to lead his transition, along with Baltimore City Solicitor Ralph Tyler.

They will begin recruiting team members and staffing their office, and Governor Ehrlich has pledged the full cooperation of his administration. To demonstrate his commitment, his chief of staff, James "Chip" DiPaula, will be the transition team liaison.

The national repudiation of the Republican Party worked its way down the ballot to the federal/state races in Frederick County. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett had a close shave in the Frederick portion of his district, as his Iraq War veteran opponent racked up big numbers, revealing a potential weakness in the perennial victor.

Fortunately for Dr. Bartlett, his district encompasses some of the most conservative areas anywhere in the country, so when the total vote was counted, his challenger faded into the same dustbin of obscurity that his many predecessors have.

In the state Senate race in District 3, incumbent Sen. Alex Mooney had his closest challenge in his political career. The last few weeks of this race featured the most negative and ugly direct mail ever sent, and it came from both the incumbent and the challenger. In fact, a shower was in order after reading some of this direct mail.

In the District 3A House race, Del. Patrick Hogan finds himself sweating out the absentee and provisional ballot counts to try to wrestle his seat away from fellow incumbent Del. Galen Clagett.

By all accounts, Mr. Hogan had done a good job as a representative for the City of Frederick district. He worked hard, developed a reputation as a consensus builder, and gained notoriety for his ability to follow-through with his committee work. He faces a major uphill battle as he tries to hold his seat.

Filling the two District 3A seats are faces and names familiar to Fredericktonians. In addition to Delegate Clagett, the top vote-getter was former Del. Sue Hecht. Both Ms. Hecht and Mr. Clagett have been quoted as suggesting that Frederick will fare better under Governor-elect O'Malley, partly due to their ability to work with him.

Time will tell how true this statement is, but if the Glendening Administration is a measure, then they're probably right, at least partly so. Governor Glendening was famous for only giving credit to Democrats, but even Governor Ehrlich tended to exclude those who didn't vote for his bills. Call it the spoils of political war.

Mr. Hogan trails Mr. Clagett by a scant 199 votes, with several hundred provisional ballots in District 3A to be reviewed and counted today. It's a long shot, but still a statistical possibility.

In the District 3B race, suffice it to say that there will probably be four more years of General Assembly Journal entries!

In District 4, the super majority of Republicans virtually assured that the current delegates - Paul Stull and Joe Bartlett - would be re-elected. Democrat Maggi Hays ran a good race, but it just wasn't in the cards. In Carroll and Frederick, incumbent Del. Don Elliott will continue to serve Maryland; and I'm guessing he'll push to return to the Health Committee, where his life experience as a pharmacist is put to excellent use. Dr. Elliott's the real deal, and he's a true policy expert.

District 4 Sen. David Brinkley, obviously very popular (considering he had no opposition in the election), is toying with a Senate leadership run. Years ago, Sen. Jack Derr (R., Frederick) served as the minority leader. Mr. Brinkley certainly has a good chance to duplicate that feat, but he'll face opposition from his own county Senate delegation partner, Alex Mooney.

Clearly, voters nationally expressed frustration over the Iraq war by supporting Democrat candidates up and down the ballot. Democrats seized control of over 25 state legislatures; several key governors' races, as well as the Congress.

Evidence of that "kill the Republicans" strategy is harder to find in Frederick. Republicans still hold a majority of the elected offices in the county, with three of the five commissioners, the sheriff, register of wills, clerk of the court, state's attorney, Orphans Court, and six of the eight delegation seats remaining in Republican hands.

The strategy was evident here, though. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett had a close race in Frederick County. Republicans failed to deliver a strong enough majority to offset other counties in the governor and U.S. Senate races. State Sen. Alex Mooney had his toughest challenge to date; and Delegate Hogan is forced to await the provisional ballot canvass to know if he's headed back to Annapolis in January, or if he needs to go sooner to clean out his office.

Only a fool would suggest that these signs don't indicate a weakened national grand old party, and now the donkeys get their turn to influence national policy leading up to the 2008 presidential election.

Wonder how they'll do?

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