- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley missed the ceremonial opening of this year’s General Assembly while he toured Israel.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has traveled to the Holy Land three times. And Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. set aside $260,000 in federal money to bolster security at a Jewish private school and a synagogue.

Their motivation, some observers say, is winning votes from Maryland’s wealthy, politically active Jewish communities.

Mr. Ehrlich first visited Israel as a Republican congressman. Polls taken just before he won the governor’s seat in 2002 showed he had won more than 30 percent of a voting group that traditionally leans Democratic.

Nationally, Jewish voters choose Democrats 75 percent to 80 percent of the time, said Patrick Gonzales, an Annapolis-based pollster.

Since then, Mr. Ehrlich has been working to maintain the inroads he made with Jewish voters.

“I’m sure Ehrlich is aware of the relative strength he had with Jewish voters in 2002, and I’d guess he’s trying to maintain that,” Mr. Gonzales said. “Who wouldn’t?”

The strategy jibes with a national Republican plan to aggressively target crossover Jewish votes. President Bush’s 2004 campaign emphasized his pro-Israel policies, much the same way Mr. Ehrlich is.

At the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, the governor announced that $100,000 would be granted for glass barriers and other improvements to help protect against a terrorist attack.

The administration went out of its way to gain federal permission to pass on the money, said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. The governor pressed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and eventually got approval to share the cash with Jewish groups.

“It’s not the usual pattern, but of course this is an unusual age,” said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “This is post-9/11,” he said.

The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School collects thousands of dollars a year per student for tuition, Mr. Abramson acknowledged, but not enough to cover the high cost of installing cameras and scanners and issuing ID cards.

Mr. Abramson said the actions of Mr. Ehrlich, along with Democrats Mr. Duncan and Mr. O’Malley — his potential rivals for the governor’s seat in 2006 — will be seen as politically motivated no matter what.

“So be it,” said Mr. Abramson, who has accompanied all three on trips to Israel. “The point is what happened, what is the outcome. The result of this can only be positive.”

Maryland’s Jewish residents, who are concentrated in the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington, make up about 4 percent of the state’s population. But their turnout rate at the polls in Baltimore is more than 80 percent, Mr. Abramson noted.

“Obviously, the Jewish community is an important constituency,” he said.

Mr. O’Malley’s aides also say security needs are the impetus for the grants and trips to Israel. The mayor returned this month from a weeklong tour to study the efforts of security experts there. His office also issued press releases announcing federal grants distributed to Jewish institutions in the Baltimore area.

The money isn’t being distributed “as political pork or to curry favor with any constituency,” said Rick Abbruzzese, the mayor’s deputy press secretary.

For those keeping a tally of dollars, Mr. Duncan’s administration has overseen the greatest distribution by far of grants to Jewish groups.

Since 1996, Mr. Duncan has overseen the allotment of $11 million to Jewish community groups, social services agencies, foundations, day schools and group homes. He traveled to Israel within two years of being elected county executive in 1994 and has won recognition from the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Jerry Pasternak, a Duncan aide.

Mr. Duncan has arranged for Jewish day schools to take over unused public schools, and he has long supported zoning changes that allowed synagogues to expand.

“For 10 years, he has been out in the Jewish community,” Mr. Pasternak said. “He’s a regular at ground-breakings, ribbon cuttings, annual events, dinners and fund-raisers. He’s a fixture in the Jewish community.”

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