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November 20, 2006

The Ehrlich Legacy

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Historians use a rear view mirror to assess the relative merits of a politician's tenure. Opinion writers do the same thing, but they lack the credibility ascribed to their historian counterparts.

It may be premature to assess Governor Robert L. Ehrlich's impact, and a longer wait will likely produce a more full measure, but I've never been politically patient.

Five years ago, Representative Ehrlich threw caution to the wind and filed to run for governor of Maryland. He held a relatively safe seat in the Congress; he was moving up through the ranks towards a leadership post. His congressional tenure was marked by his aggressive commitment to bio-technology, particularly in research and development. That issue would figure prominently in his political future.

Most pundits and observers were certain Congressman Ehrlich would have been re-elected in 2002 had he sought to hold his seat. An ally of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the future of Bob Ehrlich looked very bright indeed.

So, why would an up-and-coming congressman, virtually assured of re-election, place his name on a statewide ballot for governor in a state where his party was a distinct minority?

Optimism, passion, and vision are the most likely culprits.

Bob Ehrlich is nothing if not optimistic; he'd have to be to think that he'd had any chance to be the governor of Maryland in 2003. Parris Glendening had been governor for eight years, and both family and party had groomed his handpicked successor, Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend, for the job.

Looking back, Bob Ehrlich and his wife Kendal had to see the daunting reality. A 2-1-voter registration advantage for the other side; the name recognition that comes from the Kennedy clan; an unlimited checkbook of national Democratic Party money; and the impression of a weakened Republican Party apparatus.

Notice I said the impression of weakness. In truth, the Maryland Republican Party had been undergoing a stealth revitalization, led by the party chairman, Michael Steele.

Mr. Steele's impressive party-building skill hadn't escaped Mr. Ehrlich's view. In fact, the broad coalitions of business, faith, and community organizations built by Mike Steele and his executive director, Paul Ellington, were so attractive that Mr. Steele was tapped as his running mate.

John Kane, a multi-millionaire trucking magnate, had expressed some interest in the governor's race. Once Bob Ehrlich announced his intentions, Mr. Kane accepted the role of party chair, replacing Michael Steele. Having a strong GOP party chair would be essential to beating Ms. Kennedy-Townsend.

Bob Ehrlich revealed himself to Maryland as a bright, energetic, and enthusiastic campaigner. There was no fire hall, church, shopping mall, or community center that was safe from the gripping, grinning, and hugging assault that Mr. Ehrlich's previous campaigns were known for.

Ms. Kennedy-Townsend was a charming civil servant, but lacked the star power of Mr. Ehrlich. She sometimes seemed pained to speak to large crowds; she leaned heavily on staff that was too intent on protecting her; and she suffered from a political tin ear on some very important decisions.

The best evidence of that was her choice for lieutenant governor, retired Navy Admiral Charles Larsen. A Republican who had switched parties in order to run, he went over with state Democrats like a lead balloon. Not only did he fail to inspire folks, he reminded minority voters there were hundreds of others better suited for the job.

Once elected, Governor Ehrlich governed with a passion not seen in decades. Children's toys on the lawn of Government House signaled a significant change in direction, but his official actions were the most telling symbol.

Bob Ehrlich treats everyone he meets like an old friend. Troopers who provided his protection, photographers who took his official pictures, and mansion staff that interacted with him and his family have unofficially communicated their love for the Ehrlichs. All were treated to the same warmth and affection, and the Ehrlichs seem to leave a wake of admiration wherever they go.

His accomplishments as chief executive are even more impressive. The $2 billion deficit left by the Glendening/Townsend team meant that Bob Ehrlich would spend the first few years of his term reigning in spending habits, not passing around political reward money.

He was viciously attacked by Democrats for cutting pet projects and programs, but he made it clear that job number one was restoring Maryland's fiscal house. Bob Ehrlich understood that he had to eliminate deficit spending and fight broad-based tax increases in order to accomplish his larger goals of long-term economic success.

That $2 billion shortfall is now a $4 billion surplus. Sure, some unpopular - but temporary - funding reductions resulted. The university system took some hits, as did some health assistance outreach programs. In a quick search, it appears that nothing was spared, as is fair and equitable.

His sincere concern about the equine industry in Maryland led him to embrace slot machines. He found an ally in legendary State Senate President Mike Miller, but a sworn enemy in House of Delegates Speaker Mike Busch.

Several attempts to push a slots bill through the legislature became the most significant policy defeat for Governor Ehrlich. Speaker Busch made it his mission to deny Governor Ehrlich that policy victory.

On other policy battles, his record will be judged more favorably. His environmental commitment will be marked by his commitment to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. His Bay Restoration Act, funded by a fee on sewer system users, is considered a model for nutrient removal. Democrat attempts to burden his idea with a fee on septic users might have angered some rural Marylanders, but most people want to see the Bay's health improved, so the bill passed and became law.

His attempt to reform medical malpractice insurance was also scuttled by the trial lawyers and their water-carrying legislators; but he was able to make the point that unless we control the spiraling costs of insuring doctors against frivolous lawsuits, we'll continue to lose good doctors. The Miller/Busch team felt a tax on HMO insurance policies was a better solution, providing protection for trial lawyers.

He funded the ground-breaking Bridge to Excellence in Education act, adding up to $3.8 billion in funding to public schools in Maryland. His predecessor left this unfunded mandate on the Governor's Office doorstep, but Bob Ehrlich solved the problem.

He created a simple solution to the thorny issue of medical decisions of same-sex couples, without venturing into the marriage debate. He created an advance medical directive registry using the motor vehicle registration mechanism, and it solved the problem.

He reduced the size of government by seven percent; he added an important drug treatment program to our state prison system; and he made agriculture an important part of our economic dialogue by directly engaging farmers. He strongly supported stem cell research, preferring to leave the sticky debate on which types of cells would be subject to research to people who could actually understand the long-term scientific yield.

His legacy will be the several thousand high-paying technology jobs created under his tenure; the aggressive strategy to add federal jobs through the BRAC process; and maybe most importantly, Bob Ehrlich will be forever remembered for embracing the job of governor with a love of people and passion for public service not seen previously and likely never to be seen again.

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