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Uproar Puts Ehrlich's Likability On the Line

By April Witt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page A01

Lofty ideals -- honor, service, accomplishment -- were on the agenda when some of the University of Maryland's most august backers gathered at the State House recently to recognize two alumni donating some of the largest gifts in the school's history.

One of the honorees quoted Aristotle. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) gave a pep talk and joked about sports.

Ehrlich the day after his aide's ouster. His swift action proves "he won't tolerate" dirty tricks, said Paul E. Schurick, his communications director. (Chris Gardner -- AP)

_____More From The Post_____
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Personnel System Abuse Alleged (The Washington Post, Feb 13, 2005)
Cloak of Internet Propels Deceit, Sneak Attacks (The Washington Post, Feb 13, 2005)
Uproar Brings Focus on Role Of Bloggers (The Washington Post, Feb 11, 2005)
Probe Sought Of O'Malley Affair Rumors (The Washington Post, Feb 10, 2005)
Fired Staffer Called Ehrlich's 'Hatchet Man' (The Washington Post, Feb 10, 2005)
Ehrlich Aide Ousted Over O'Malley Rumors (The Washington Post, Feb 9, 2005)
_____Maryland Government_____
Writing Himself Into Controversy (The Washington Post, Feb 13, 2005)
O'Malley Flap Enters Governor Race (The Washington Post, Feb 13, 2005)
Md. Senate Committee Sends Softened Slots Bill to the Floor (The Washington Post, Feb 12, 2005)
Ehrlich Issues Double Salvo On Steffen, Purge of Staff (The Washington Post, Feb 12, 2005)
Full Report

"The campus is on a roll," the governor said as he flashed his trademark smile. "The only thing I can see that's a problem on this campus right now is you need some defensive rebounds."

Ehrlich, son of a car salesman, rose from a modest Baltimore County rowhouse to the State House as an amiable jock, the sunny, wholesome and likable Everyman: Gov. Bob.

Less obvious -- but equally defining -- is his intense competitiveness. The former Ivy League middle linebacker still relishes pounding opponents on any field and makes no apologies for that. "It's a full-contact sport here," Ehrlich said recently. "The bottom line is the bottom line: What scores?"

The governor made the remarks just days before news broke Wednesday that one of his longtime aides had discussed on the Internet efforts to spread rumors that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat considering challenging Ehrlich in the 2006 gubernatorial race, had an extramarital affair.

O'Malley said the rumors were false, vicious and orchestrated to sink his candidacy. Ehrlich responded by forcing his aide, Joseph Steffen, to resign and vowing that he personally had nothing to do with spreading the rumors. Democratic lawmakers are demanding an independent investigation.

The controversy has the potential to land an unprecedented blow to Ehrlich's most valuable political asset: his likable persona.

"People vote for people they like," Baltimore County Republican Party Chairman Chris Cavey said, discussing Ehrlich's appeal in an interview just before the O'Malley story broke. "People feel they can grab him by the shoulder. He loves dealing with people. What more could you want, a likable guy who likes people back?

"The worst thing an elected official can ever do is say one thing and do another. I don't remember when he ever has."

During his tenure as governor, Ehrlich's public relations staff has, through public appearances, television ads and a state Web site, consistently projected wholesome images of the handsome governor with his photogenic family.

Now the O'Malley controversy has generated equally powerful family images: the Baltimore mayor and his wife, Catherine, stricken and clinging to one another, as they faced reporters to say how false rumors of infidelity have devastated them and their children.

Those competing images have the potential to recast Ehrlich as hypocritical, critics say, especially since he lectured the General Assembly in his recent State of the State address on the need to restore civility and respect to politics in Annapolis.

"To me, it was ironic because you have someone who was a participant of the Newt Gingrich revolt on Capitol Hill and came to Annapolis bringing a kind of partisan politics we haven't seen before complaining about lack of respect," Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said. "It certainly makes you wonder what kind of administration they are running. It shows someone who is thin-skinned to a surprising degree because, in person, the governor is affable, pleasant and fun to be around."

Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director, said Friday that Ehrlich's prompt ouster of Steffen made clear that "he won't tolerate" dirty tricks in his administration. "This is a man who 10 days ago preached about the importance of respect because he believes in that," Schurick said.

Ask people who know the governor about his essential nature and their answers tend to fall into one of two camps. The governor is an extraordinarily charming man whose ability to connect with voters gives him unlimited political potential, or he's poised to squander that potential.

Rick Lippenholz, a photographer who has chronicled Maryland's last three governors, sees the power of the governor's popular appeal daily. "He is loved," Lippenholz said. "I've been doing this for 36 years, and I am shocked. At a parade, a Fourth of July parade, it doesn't matter where it is . . . when he goes down, it's a roar. It's like being in Madison Square Garden."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) views the governor as missing an extraordinary opportunity to use his personal appeal to unite and lead.

"I came here with great expectations," Busch said. "I have a great admiration for Bob Ehrlich. He has a wonderful personality. His story, a kid from a blue-collar community goes to Princeton and becomes governor of a state, is something they do books and TV movies about.

"I keep waiting for this talent to kind of reach out and meet its potential. His potential was limitless when he came to office. Any limitations that have resulted have basically been self-inflicted."

Always in the Spotlight

At a private Republican gathering Monday night, Ehrlich spoke of the challenges the Maryland GOP faces shifting from a relatively powerless minority party to running the executive branch.

"We're going to measure success as a function of how efficient we are in the way we deliver goods and services," Ehrlich said. "We're not there yet. But we're all relatively new. As Republicans, we say, 'Oh my God, we won.' "

In a separate interview, sitting in the cluttered kitchen of the governor's mansion surrounded by children's toys and a half-eaten bowl of Cheerios, Ehrlich said that description fits his young administration. "There was not any grand plan," said Ehrlich, eating animal crackers as he spoke. "When you are a Republican in Maryland, you do not make aggressive plans for the future."

After claiming victory on election night, Ehrlich said, "I remember coming down in the elevator thinking, 'This is it. Here we are.' "

The former congressman believes he has shown he is ready to assume power, although it's come at a personal cost he didn't anticipate. "In Congress, I could say what I wanted, then go to Starbucks, go to the gym, go home and play with the baby," Ehrlich said. As governor, "reporters follow me around every waking moment."

Speeches and the kinds of politically incorrect comments that Ehrlich had been making for years -- such as calling multiculturalism "bunk" -- now make news. "All heck breaks loose once in a while, and we just live with it," the governor said. "As for me, what you see is what you are going to get. Not going to change. Can't change."

On the contrary, Ehrlich said a crucial part of his appeal is that voters sense he's a regular guy who "speaks from the heart."

Some critical press coverage has nettled the governor. Ehrlich's refusal to speak to two Baltimore Sun writers who he contends questioned his integrity, and his administration's attempts to stop state employees from cooperating with the pair, sparked a lawsuit by the newspaper. "Who says we don't like the press?" Ehrlich said. "We don't like two people."

"We don't dislike them," an aide quickly corrected the governor.

"Yes, we do -- intensely," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich believes that when hit, you hit back. "We spend a fair amount of time strategizing how we want to communicate our message, anticipating where the hits are coming from on the other side, how we want to do the schedule, how we want to run our government," Ehrlich said. "But I will not, and cannot, spend time talking and thinking about dots that do not connect. Innuendo."

Ehrlich is equally out of sorts over what he calls disrespectful treatment from some Democratic legislators. The governor variously puzzled and infuriated some legislators recently when he began his State of the State address by chiding them in a lengthy preamble. "Being treated with dignity when I enter a chamber -- thank you very much -- it's about respect," Ehrlich told legislators.

The preamble wasn't scripted, but it was planned. Fed up with petty slights from "a small minority" of legislators, the governor said in an interview that he woke up that morning determined to let them know. "I had walked into the Senate on opening day and noticed that one senator not only did not stand up, but he opened his bill book and started reading," he recalled.

Ehrlich contends that he is pleased with the response to his lecture from the audience that matters most to him: "the people."

Empowered by the People

Projecting his wholesome image directly to voters is so important to the governor that he chronically runs late to meetings because he stops to chat with ordinary people -- throws his arm around them and has his official photographer capture the moment.

"When I'm out in public, I am really moved," Ehrlich said. "It's fairly rare to have people react to a politician the way they react. It's not rock star stuff. It's 'Thanks for being straight up, thanks for not being politically correct.' That does empower me. That does reenergize me."

Every night when he returns home to the mansion, he spends 30 minutes signing photographs. "It's part of my homework," Ehrlich said, chuckling. "It's what I need to do. If I don't do it, I'll fall behind.

On a recent afternoon, the governor devoted an hour and a half to being photographed with scheduled visitors: a Korean American leaders group, a Montgomery County businessman who'd made him a photo album, a Naval Academy midshipman.

His last photo session was with a high school senior from Salisbury, a standout student-athlete who had just won an award from the Wendy's restaurant chain for his achievements on and off the field. The teenager and his parents looked nervous and said little as the governor adroitly maneuvered them into place for a group photo.

The governor soon had them laughing as he joshed about the time he worked the takeout window at a Wendy's as a prank captured on a hidden camera. "It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen," Ehrlich said, recounting how he cadged fries from incredulous customers and claimed he'd taken a second job because "the first lady has maxed out our credit cards."

Emboldened, the student told the governor that he'd been accepted to the Naval Academy and the University of Maryland and that he was waiting to hear from Princeton, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others.

"What's your first choice?" the governor asked.

"I don't have one," the youth said smoothly, prompting the governor to gaze at him with admiration before turning back to smile at the camera.

"Good answer," Ehrlich said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company