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As Long as We Remember...

January 16, 2007

Bob Ehrlich's Chief Regret

Roy Meachum

Above the staircase on North Market Street, photos of two lady politicians should be remembered when reading this piece.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend stands, all smiley and self-confident, taken in a mutual friends' home; I figured her to be the next Democratic governor. And I was wrong.

Directly above Mrs. Townsend's picture another lady delights in getting her face licked by Pushkin, when the English pointer was a four-month-old puppy. The original appeared on the front page of The Washington Times when Ellen Sauerbrey attempted - and failed - to end Democratic supremacy in Annapolis.

As most readers know, the photos were taken four years apart, and Mrs. Townsend was defeated by the gentleman who ends his single term as governor tomorrow. On his way out the door, Bob Ehrlich's greatest lament was his failure to convert Maryland into a genuine two-party state.

As the two pictures in my front hall testify, I was on that bandwagon before Mr. Ehrlich tossed his baseball-style cap into the 2002 gubernatorial race. After Mrs. Sauerbrey's chase went down in ashes, partially enflamed by dirty, dirty politics, Mrs. Townsend seemed the next best hope. She was so independent that I counted on her to shake up the Good Ol' Boys' system dominated by former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and state Senate President Mike Miller. With overwhelming numbers, the Democrats dominated the voters' registration lists. But the GOP carried that Election Day.

The arrival in Washington of Newt Gingrich's "revolution" incited my cheers: I really believed the gentleman from Georgia would try, at least try, to reform the federal establishment. Mr. Ehrlich's victory inspired the same kind of hope, on my part. As long-time readers know, I have consistently preached every newly elected official deserves the space to make points.

That same courtesy given to Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty - although I had supported Republican Jim Grimes' re-election bid - blew up in my face, and quickly. A visit from former city Alderman David Lenhart last week brought the story about how he glowered at me at a dinner theatre opening a few months after he was sworn in. By the time he moved to Georgia we had become very fast friends, thanks to Ms. Dougherty's obsessively neurotic style.

In Mr. Gingrich's case, the whiff of greatness - he was the revolution after all - turned to powder and blew off. He was seemingly more interested in making a book publishing deal and placing "good Republicans" at the controls of congressional elevators. Encouraged by his examples, others in his victors' parade hastily grabbed up the "spoils" left lying around by Democrats.

In Maryland, any desire to replace one-party rule met the same fate. The good news that the new governor ushers in tomorrow is that the traditionally American dumping out the losers has been slowed down by the excesses of the departing administration. Given my druthers, only strictly policy posts would be available.

Over the past four years we have witnessed a melodrama, complete with a self-described "prince of darkness," engaged in selective firing and replacements, who often brought party loyalty as their only credential. We learned this, of course, from a press antagonized by Mr. Ehrlich's subordinates in charge of such matters.

How the people or politicians gained advantage from setting up a blacklist of The Sun's Annapolis bureau chief and a columnist cannot be explained. Not rationally. (Matters were made much worse within the profession when The Washington Post editorially endorsed the incumbent, who had acted to control freedom of the press.)

To give Mr. Ehrlich credit, his official reach never dipped to the levels endured by Maryland under his predecessor Parris Glendening. The last Democratic governor exhibited within his first months in office more self-serving corruption than I would have thought possible.

Given that he arrived in office with so much bipartisan leadership support, at that point he should have made crystal clear his intention to run State House in such a fashion as to welcome all, especially his erstwhile opponents. That did not happen. It seemed from here that Mr. Ehrlich's crew walked in very determined to get in the first punches. They appeared to believe they had received some sort of mandate. They hadn't.

What with the Democratic leaders pulling their own factions back into line after (gasp!) enabling the first Republican governor in a generation, the coalition of convenience immediately fell apart. Its demise hastened along by the GOP crew attempting to seize control on an absolute basis - and quickly. Trust is not an attribute to be admired in political circles.

While Bob Ehrlich could boast of spreading appointments around, the Democrats on his team were of the beefsteak variety - done a political blue only on the outside but a strong Republican red at the center. They were not the sort to lead a march into the GOP camp.

What a pity! Pushkin and I would have both liked to see the death of a one-party Maryland and that simply cannot happen the next four years. But the ladies in the photos above the stairs on North Market Street smile down on a home where hope still exists.

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