Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) used his annual State of the State address today to call on the Democratic legislature to sweep from Annapolis a brand of "Capitol Hill assassin politics" that he says has degraded state government.
The first Republican to hold the governor's office in more than three decades, Ehrlich devoted nearly a quarter of his 50-minute address to the withered relations between his office and the General Assembly.
"As a member I stood against this type of behavior," said Ehrlich, who served two terms in the state legislature and four in Congress. "It's damaging. It's degrading to us."
After urging better cooperation, the governor detailed key elements of a legislative agenda that promises, for the most part, to be far less contentious than his efforts in prior years. Among his initiatives are programs aimed at protecting children from lead poisoning, strengthening penalties for teenagers who drive drunk and providing tax relief to veterans.
Democrats sat quietly through much of the speech. Sen. Roy Dyson (D-St. Mary's) said the senator seated next to him jabbed his arm repeatedly throughout the speech and whispered, "That's not true. That's not true."
Afterward, the lawmakers reacted coolly to what they viewed as a lengthy lecture from the governor on the subject of respect.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said Ehrlich should start by trying to change the tone among those in his own office.
"The problem is he's hired people from Capitol Hill, and he's got to lecture his staff on the same point," Miller said.
Ehrlich spoke in a casual style and broke repeatedly from prepared remarks, at one point pausing to pump his fist for the University of Maryland's basketball win last night. During a recitation of improving economic conditions in the state, he noted that tourism has improved markedly, then grinned and made reference to controversial tourism ads that he stars in.
"Just a thought. Maybe those commercials are working," he said.
The speech started with a lengthy discussion of his feelings about respect and devoted several minutes to a recent problem in his relationship with U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).
The governor said Hoyer had called him to patch things up but Ehrlich never explained the origin of the tension between them. (It stemmed from an item in Roll Call two days ago, which Hoyer quickly disavowed, in which an anonymous source was quoted as saying congressman hated Ehrlich.)
The anecdote appeared to baffle most in the room, who had not read the item.
"I found the whole speech very strange," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), who along with Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), is considering challenging Ehrlich in 2006.
"The whole Aretha Franklin number," O'Malley said of Ehrlich's repeated calls for more respect, "seemed strange from a governor who has brought a particularly divisive brand of government to Annapolis."