- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006

With Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan’s departure from the Maryland gubernatorial race, the stage is set for a showdown between Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the all-but-certain Democratic nominee, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. Both men are charismatic, ambitious politicians, and it’s no secret that both dislike one another strongly. That’s where the similarity ends.

Mr. O’Malley is a liberal ideologue with a disconcerting tendency to whine and look for Republicans to blame (usually Mr. Ehrlich or President Bush) when he thinksinsufficient largess is being funnelled into his city. The defining issue of Mr. Ehrlich’s governorship, by contrast, has been his underappreciated effort to prevent a General Assembly dominated by liberal Democratsfromenacting higher taxes and new regulationsthat threaten to drive businesses from Maryland.

Between now and Nov. 7, we will be highlighting the major differences on these issues between Mr. Ehrlich’s approach and that of Mr. O’Malley and his political allies in the General Assembly, led by House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Mike Miller. When it comes to taxes, spending and nanny-state regulation, the differences between the two sides are deep and wide.

The stakes in the November gubernatorial election are enormous for Republicans and Democrats, as well as Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. O’Malley. The winner will have a bright political future. By contrast, if recent history is any indication, the loser will be badly damaged (if not finished) as a candidate for statewide office in Maryland. Since 1970, only one person in Maryland has run statewide and lost, and come back later to win: Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat who served on the Baltimore City Council, ran and lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Charles Mathias in 1974, but in 1976 won election to the House of Representatives. In 1986, following Mr. Mathias’ retirement, she was elected to succeed him in the Senate. The loser of this year’s gubernatorial race is more likely to end up like unsuccessful candidates of years past — like Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg, Rep. Helen Bentley, Sen. Joseph Tydings and Attorney General Steve Sachs. They all were finished politically, at least so far as winning statewide office in Maryland was concerned.

AlthoughMr. Ehrlich’s prodigious fundraising skills make him a formidable candidate, right now the race increasingly looks like it is Mr. O’Malley’s to lose. Two recent polls have him running nine to 11 points ahead of Mr. Ehrlich (according to a poll published in The Washington Post this week, the governor trails by 16 points among those who say they are “absolutely certain” to vote). In some ways, this is not surprising. Maryland is a blue state, carried by John Kerry two years ago and by Al Gore in 2000. Democrats command roughly a 2-1 lead in voter registration: margins of more than 2-1 in each house of the General Assembly, and 4-1 in the state’s congressional delegation. In 2002, Mr. Ehrlich ran a superb campaign in which he was able to capitalize on voter distaste for the outgoing Democratic incumbent, Parris Glendening, and the political ineptitude of the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. In the end, Mr. Ehrlich and Michael Steele won by 3 percentage points to become the state’s first Republican elected governor since Spiro Agnew in 1966, while Mr. Steele became the state’s first black lieutenant governor.

For all his flaws, Mr. O’Malley is not Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, but a very skilled politician. In the wake of Mr. Duncan’s withdrawal from the race, he has moved quickly to reunite the Democratic Party after what had become a bruising political primary. Until last week, Ehrlich partisans had every reason to believe that the governor could bide his time while Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Duncan (who was making significant inroads in narrowing the O’Malley lead) tore each other apart for another two and a half months. Mr. Duncan, in particular, seemed to be cutting into Mr. O’Malley’s lead with a hard-hitting series of advertisements about the crime problem in Baltimore and the public school system, the city’s longest-standing embarrassment. Now, with Mr. Duncan out of the race, the Ehrlich campaign needs to push forward — running commercials of its own which ask the voters if they want the state to become more like Mayor O’Malley’s Baltimore.

We fully expect that, should Mr. Ehrlich run such hard-hitting ads through November, he will be disparaged by the Democrats and their political allies at The Post and Baltimore Sun editorial boards for being “mean-spirited” and “going negative.” We disagree. The least useful commercials tend to be empty feel-good ones which often edge toward the maudlin and tell you little about the issues facing the candidates.

The most informative ads, by contrast, are ones dealing with controversial issues. Two that would be good for starters would be 1) the crime problem in Baltimore; and 2) how the General Assembly, in an effort to spare poor Mr. O’Malley and the Baltimore school board the embarrassment of a state takeover of failing public schools pursuant to the No Child Left Behind act, overrode Mr. Ehrlich’s veto in order to pass legislation ensuring that the city bureaucrats who ran the system into the ground remained in charge.

Unfortunately, we get the sense that, all too often, the governor has been receiving and acting upon very poor political advice that causes him to shy away from challenging the legislature to behave more responsibly. One example is the state’s disgraceful handling of the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal aliens: Mr. O’Malley has been a tenacious advocate on behalf of illegals in Maryland. His political allies in the General Assembly, led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, have actually made it easier for illegals to obtain such licenses on the governor’s watch, yet Mr. Ehrlich is not actively trying to reverse this — despite the fact that the nonpartisan Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License says that Maryland is one of the weakest states in the country when it comes to ensuring the integrity of its driver’s licenses.

The governor’s timidity is even more mystifying in view of his recent success in confronting Mr. Vallario to stop his blocking enactment of legislation that increases penalties for sex offenders who prey on children. Had it not been for a determined campaign by Mr. Ehrlich and other reform advocates, Mr. Vallario would have succeeded in killing the bill in committee. As he makes his case to the voters, Mr. Ehrlich would be well-served to remind them of efforts by the Democrats to bottle up the sex-offender legislation.

And that’s just the beginning. Mr. Ehrlich would do well to look at Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign against a “do-nothing Congress” and his come-from-behind victory against Thomas Dewey; instead of doing nothing, however, the Maryland General Assembly has acted to make things worse: Whether it is the succession of tax increases on everything from HMOs to income, increasing the minimum wage, a punitive, discriminatory tax against Wal-Mart, or the absurd political posturing on Baltimore Gas and Electric Corp., or the early voting scheme that will pave the way to election fraud, the legislature is among the most irresponsible in the nation. Mr. Ehrlich’s challenge is finding a way to make this point to voters.

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