- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called for Republican unity yesterday at the state convention, where the selection of party chairman revealed divisions within the party after last month’s widespread election defeats.

“The hard left is in firm control of the state, and we don’t have the votes to stop them,” Mr. Ehrlich told party leaders in a ballroom at the Doubletree Hotel in Annapolis. “That’s not the fate of Maryland in the long term. It’s just where we are today.”

His remarks were more upbeat than those he made earlier in the day during his last appearance on the “Stateline” program on WBAL-AM radio in Baltimore.

“You just have to ask yourself a really frank, blunt question: Do your views really comport with the majority views in the state of Maryland?” he said. “In this case, clearly at this time, the answer is no, because we got fired.”

Mr. Ehrlich also predicted that legislation to legalize slot-machine gambling — one of his chief goals rejected by Democratic lawmakers — will pass the General Assembly either next year or in 2008, but that it likely would be tied to a package of tax increases.

“We hear about a graduated income tax,” he said. “Given the philosophical foundation of the folks coming into office, that would not surprise me at all. A cigarette tax, potentially a sales tax and, I guess, a gas tax is also being floated. It’s various sin taxes wrapped with a slots bill.”

Mr. Ehrlich also said party members should not “whine” or play “Monday-morning quarterback” about election losses that restored Democrats almost complete control of state government in Maryland, where they outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1.

Mr. Ehrlich, the state’s first Republican governor in 36 years, said his party must continue to engage the Democrats in political debate and point out the successes of his administration, including turning an inherited $4 billion deficit into a $2 billion surplus without raising state sales or income taxes.

He lost re-election to Gov.-elect Martin O’Malley, a Democrat.

Mr. Ehrlich also urged party leaders to be “disciplined and loyal.”

“Our party leaders must be respected and supported … in order to accomplish what we need to accomplish over the next two years,” he said.

The governor’s remarks followed the election of a party chairman, in which Dr. Jim Pelura, an ally of outgoing Republican officials, beat political upstart John White, who blamed current party leaders for the election losses and advocated retooling the organization.

Mr. White, who last month lost the race for the 3rd Congressional District seat by a large margin to Democrat John P. Sarbanes, said the 70 votes he received for chairman out of the 204 votes cast by central committee members reflected “a desire for change within the party.”

After the election, Dr. Pelura told the convention that it was “wonderful to see [different] opinions.”

“We are a group now that will work together and see that we are back in the State House in 2011,” said Dr. Pelura, a Davidsonville veterinarian who served as state chairman for President Bush’s 2004 campaign and as the Anne Arundel County chairman for Mr. Ehrlich’s 2006 campaign.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican who lost the U.S. Senate race but is the early favorite of party leaders for a 2010 gubernatorial run, also addressed the convention.

“When I walk in this room, I don’t see losers,” he said. “I don’t see quitters. I see the Maryland Republican Party: strong, viable, energized, excited and relevant, very relevant.”

Mr. Steele, who actively supported Dr. Pelura in the chairman contest, said he was “excited to work with the new leadership.”

Mr. Ehrlich told the convention that party members faced an uphill battle to regain political power and that fundraising would become more difficult.

However, the governor said, he has given the party a foothold by advancing an agenda that included policies not traditionally associated with Republicans, such as focusing on environmental protection, education and transportation. “That is progress at the policy level that people have paid attention to,” he said.

On the radio, Mr. Ehrlich said the failure to legalize slots was one of the two biggest disappointments of his term. The other, he said, was “the failure to pass structural reform with respect to medical malpractice [insurance].” The General Assembly imposed a premium tax on HMOs to help reduce the cost of malpractice insurance in 2005, overriding Mr. Ehrlich’s veto.

c This article is based in part on wire reports.

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