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July 7, 2004

News Flash: The Governor is Political!

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Okay, I need you to use your imagination. You're seated in front of an old tabletop radio, surrounded by your family. The familiar sound of the teletype machine starts clacking away in the background, and a deep-voiced announcer states: News Flash! The Governor of Maryland is actually concerned about being re-elected!

Instead of leaning forward in rapt attention, you'd probably yawn and change the station. A recent edition of the Sunday's Washington Post Metro section had me doing that very thing.

The revelation contained in the story in question was that Gov. Robert Ehrlich is planning to use the press departments of state agencies to spread the word on how his "5 Pillars" program is being implemented in Maryland.

Imagine the nerve: a Governor using public information capabilities to talk about how his programs are working. As my Grandmother used to say: "Well, I never...."

Washington Post reporters (not necessarily the brightest bulbs in the box), digging desperately for a way to create more tension between Governor Ehrlich, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, and Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, are trying to create a concern about Bob Ehrlich doing what every other governor in the history of this great state has done.

Governors use the power of state agencies to move the state toward their vision. Presumably, voters in Maryland liked what Bob Ehrlich was offering as far as the vision thing was concerned. Either that or Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend's vision was so lacking that Democrats decided to give a nice guy from Arbutus a chance.

Either way, he was elected governor. His administration has implemented a fairly direct and simple approach to re-aligning state agency priorities. He and his cabinet are using an analogy of five pillars (education, public safety, commerce, fiscal responsibility, and health and the environment (yeah, I know, that's six, but health and the environment count as one...remember, he's the governor)) holding up his vision of Maryland's government.

The Post suggests that the governor and his communications Director (Paul Schurick, one of the savviest political types I've ever met) are doing something wrong. To buttress that assertion, the reporter cites three sources.

To prove that bias exists in State House coverage, all you have to do is look at where the contributing sources come from. James Gimpel, an associate professor of political science from the University of Maryland; Donald Norris, a political science professor from the University of Maryland Baltimore County; and last but not least, Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. Surely no one would question the legitimacy of any of these three sources, right?

Why is it when political reporters write these kinds of stories that they never include the opinions of others who might have a difference of opinion with the reporter's angle?

Mr. Gimpel suggests that Governor Ehrlich has done a careful political analysis and decided to start an aggressive re-election campaign right away.

Where has the University been hiding this guy? He's an absolute genius! What an insightful, yet risky idea, for the good professor to put out there. Governor Ehrlich knows he'll face either Mayor O'Malley or County Executive Duncan (presuming they don't kill one another first) in the costliest gubernatorial campaign in Maryland history, and Professor Gimpel is really showing some academic insight by supposing that the governor might start early.

Professor Norris, another shining light in Maryland's higher education universe, opines that it is beyond the "line" for the governor's staff to communicate their ideas to - and employ the services of - state agency PR types on the governor's behalf.

I guess Professor Norris was stuck in the lecture hall for the Glendening, Schaeffer, Hughes, and Mandel administrations. In fact, in my 20+ years in Maryland, I can never recall a governor who did not take full advantage of their position to "spin" their message through every agency and opportunity.

Just a fun side-story to make my point. When Gov. Parris Glendening came to Frederick to participate in the downtown MARC Station groundbreaking event, he instructed the Mass Transit Administration PR people to remove a chair from the dais so Congressman Roscoe Bartlett would not have a place to sit. Mr. Glendening wanted Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, and others (especially elected Democrats) to share the stage, but not Representative Bartlett.

I remember thinking how petty that was at the time. Now, over 10 years later, I realize that this is just the way it is, and I have learned to accept it as the way things happen.

At least Democratic Party Director Josh White didn't make any negative comments, or maybe the reporter didn't include them. Usually good ol' Josh can be counted on to suggest that the governor or his staff have done some terrible wrong to Maryland residents. In this article, he just points out the obvious, that Governor Ehrlich and his staff will use every opportunity to get their message out.

So I'll try to spell it out, but I lack the credentials of a university professor. All have to rely on the same thing most people (excepting professors and some reporters) depend on. Common sense tells me that Bob Ehrlich has been running for re-election from the moment his victory was announced in November 2002. Hope no one is as shocked by that as the Post Metro section was!

Governor Ehrlich will use each and every tool at his disposal to communicate his ideas, thoughts, and vision to Maryland's almost five million citizens. That includes the PR function of state agencies. Anyone who is surprised by this should enroll in one of Professors Gimpel or Norris' classes....or then again, maybe not!

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