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July 7, 2008

Political Street Gossip The Final Chapter

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

In an effort to run the table, and to affirm that I really have no idea what I'm talking about, I thought I'd weigh in on the 2010 gubernatorial race.


First under the microscope is our incumbent governor, Martin O'Malley. The current resident of Government House has done exactly what it appears he needs to do to cement his position for a full 8-year term, which is avoid running afoul of either Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, or House Speaker Michael Busch.


As a frequent critic, I'm hard-pressed to find a weak spot to probe. Pundits longing for Governor O'Malley's demise would point to massive tax increases, or progressive policy positions as the needed impetus, but I don't buy it for a second.


Maryland voters overwhelmingly endorsed the O'Malley leadership style and method, and anyone who didn't think that meant increasing taxes as a way to provide for additional government services and regulation is so out-of-touch that they don't deserve a vote.


Former GOP Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., left office with a higher approval rating than any of his many Democratic predecessors. His tenure was marked by antagonism and contentious relations with the General Assembly. His daily spats with Senator Miller and Delegate Busch were the stuff of Baltimore Sun legend, creating a career for several Sun writers and columnists.


Looking back, I've decided that the whole thing, the fights over taxes versus fees, the slots disagreements, the perceived snubs and missing invitations, and the personal attacks from the legislative leaders over Ehrlich's work ethic was all a strategy, a carefully conceived ploy designed to ensure that the Ehrlich Administration would only enjoy a single 4-year term.


Had President Miller or Speaker Busch really wanted to, they could have turned the knobs on their control consoles to facilitate a more effective and productive relationship with the first-term governor. They have that much power.


Sure, at first Senator Miller seemed cooperative over the issue of slot machines. He wasn't concerned with Governor Ehrlich's success, though. Mike Miller is a really astute politician, one of the shrewdest politicians Annapolis has ever seen.


Senator Miller's embrace of slots gaming isn't about helping a governor; it's about increasing revenue in Maryland without raising taxes. He knows that there can be consequences for continually increasing tax burden on citizens. Slots gambling is a much less painful way to fund the ever-increasing demand citizens place on their government.


So, thanks to the combined efforts of the two leaders and the 2-1 Democrat majority of the legislature, the Ehrlich Administration gets remembered for its brevity, not for the numerous accomplishments or the relative voter goodwill that follows former Governor Ehrlich like a wake follows a ship.


Rumors abound that Bob Ehrlich wants another shot at the heavyweight title. Unlike Ali-Frazier Two, this one wouldn't be a "thrilla" anywhere. The huge statewide Democratic voter majority suggests that Governor O'Malley will get his second term in 2010, unless he gets involved in some major political or personal scandal.


It seems politically counter-intuitive to suggest that tax increases, expanded government, and burdensome regulation wouldn't result in massive voter backlash, but in Maryland, the traditional political wisdom simply doesn't apply.


Bob Ehrlich will maintain a high-profile public presence. His Saturday morning radio show on Baltimore’s WBAL garners big ratings, mostly because Republican talk radio fans finally have something meaningful to listen to. He will attend political rallies for GOP candidates, and his presence still brings in the checks.


It isn't clear that he'll be a candidate for governor, though. The more likely scenario is that he sits back and waits, conduct some polls, and evaluates the strength of Governor O'Malley over the next year. Given that voters rejected a second consecutive Ehrlich term, in spite of his obvious success and favorability rating, it seems very unlikely that those same voters will embrace Bob Ehrlich's vision for Maryland without some other motivation.


The same may not be said about former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, though. His profile is national, as he runs GOPAC, a national Republican party fundraising and candidate development organization. GOPAC sends Mr. Steele around the country as a high-profile symbol of a racially diverse big-tent party, although his ideology tends toward the very conservative.


Former Lieutenant Governor Steele and his advisors may be looking at the voter contrast of a truly conservative African American gubernatorial candidate to the tax-and-spend liberal policies of Governor O'Malley. I don't think it'll work. A more likely scenario for the first elected black governor of Maryland will come about in 2014, as Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown will appear as if in a poster, decked out in his Army uniform and his Harvard-educated eloquence.


The most interesting challenge might not even come from the Republicans. Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot seems intent on defining his differences with Governor O'Malley, and slots gaming gives him the best platform from which to posture.


Mr. Franchot, formerly the most liberal member of the House of Delegates, was once a slot machine gaming proponent. In fact, he proposed legislation very similar to the bill offered by Governor Ehrlich. Things change, and now Mr. Franchot is the political darling of Stop Slots Maryland.


By contrast, Governor O'Malley's future political success is now inexorably linked to the passage of the slot machine referendum on November's ballot. It must pass, or else Governor O'Malley is facing severe cuts to things like healthcare, environment, and public education. Imagine that choice, especially by a Democrat!


The two liberal stalwarts often disagree and occasionally fight with one another during monthly Board of Public Works meetings, a platform for state contract-award decisions where they share an equal vote along with Treasurer Nancy Kopp.


I'm not sure how one "out-liberals" Governor O'Malley, though. If the disagreement was over something other than slots, maybe that strategy might gain some traction. Gambling divides along odd lines, and there are many more conservative (read Republican) slots opponents than there are liberals. My liberal friends just want the money for new programs; they're not nearly as picky about where it comes from. I don't think Mr. Franchot will succeed, but he will make it fun to watch.


So, my money is on a second O'Malley term, and I don't even think Bob Ehrlich runs if the cards say his election is as unlikely as it currently seems. He has too much pride (and well-deserved, I might add) and too bright a future to risk another statewide loss.


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