- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday said his No. 1 long-term political goal is to secure the election of his lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele.

“In order to get Mike in there, we have to win, we [Republicans] have to increase our numbers in the General Assembly, we have to continue the cultural changes,” Mr. Ehrlich told editors and reporters from The Washington Times during a luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion.

Mr. Steele, a former state Republican Party chairman, grabbed headlines at the national convention with his Aug. 31 prime-time speech touting a more diverse party. He also has said he intends to run for governor in 2010, or should Mr. Ehrlich leave office, earlier.

Mr. Ehrlich, the first Republican to be elected governor in more than 30 years, said there is not much of a state party outside of himself and his lieutenant governor, acknowledging Democratic opposition to his administration’s policies and goals.

“Obviously, our election [in 2006] will signal whether the little experiment in multiparty democracy succeeded or failed,” the governor said. “But if we are [re-elected] and we generally end up with the same legislature in a philosophical sense, it is going to be difficult in a second term.”

Maryland is undergoing a political “realignment” in which conservative Democrats, who used to lead legislative bodies, have found some common ground with Republicans, while liberal Democrats have emerged as the party’s leaders, said Mr. Ehrlich, a former state delegate and U.S. representative.

“As a result, you have seen growth in the Republican Party in the state, and you have seen Democrats kind of coalesce around three subdivisions [Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore],” he said.

“Clearly, our goal is to further this realignment,” he said. “We will never be a Virginia. I think there are certain obstacles there, but I think we can become competitive.”

“If you look at where the leadership came from in the Democratic Party — both the House and the Senate — typically, it was rural, conservative Democrats,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “My suspicion is the era of more rural conservative Democrat leaders emerging in the General Assembly is over for good. … In that sense, we are following the national model and the congressional realignment that has occurred over the last 10 or 15 years in the country.”

The governor said he is counting on the realignment to avoid a legislative logjam in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

One of his key initiatives — setting up slot machines at horse-racing tracks — has met solid opposition from House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, who has killed the legislation for the past two years. Mr. Ehrlich said he remains committed to pushing for slots legislation to revive the state’s racing industry, fund a billion-dollar education program and save farmland from development.

“Mike and I go back a long time. We have a personal relationship,” said Mr. Ehrlich, avoiding blaming Mr. Busch for blocking his slots effort. “He has said this is simply not a priority issue for him. The Preakness is not a priority event for him.”

“Mike’s actions, we have decided, are a function of where his leadership is,” he said. “His views are fairly reflective of his senior leadership team. His senior leadership team [are more invested in a] tax increase than they are in slots, nor are they into horse racing.”

Mr. Ehrlich said medical-malpractice reform will be first on his list of issues when the legislative session begins in January.

“I believe the No. 1 issue in the state is medical malpractice,” he said, noting that obstetricians and surgeons are abandoning their practices in Maryland because they cannot afford malpractice insurance and fear litigation.

He has appointed a task force to look into the issue.

The governor said most key issues may not be resolved until there is more equity between the state’s two major parties — something he hopes can be gained by the current crop of Republican candidates in upcoming elections.

“We are in a growth mode,” he said. “And you only grow with quality candidates.”

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