Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. used his annual State of the State address yesterday to urge the Democrat-led legislature to sweep from Annapolis a brand of "Capitol Hill assassin politics" he said has degraded state government.
The first Republican to hold the governor's office in more than three decades, Ehrlich devoted a lengthy segment of his 50-minute address to the withered relations between his administration and the General Assembly.
In the audience for Gov. Ehrlich's State of the State address are Senate leaders Nathaniel J. McFadden (D), center, and J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R).
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
"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 laid out the key elements of his legislative agenda for 2005. Other than his renewed push for slot machine gambling, his program is packed with proposals that should easily appeal across party lines, including bills that aim to protect children from lead poisoning, strengthen penalties for teenagers who drive drunk and grant tax relief to veterans.
Democrats sat quietly through much of the speech. Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's) said the member seated next to him jabbed his arm repeatedly during the address and whispered, "That's not true. That's not true."
Ehrlich's speech comes midway through his term, at a time when he has become bogged down in tense battles on several fronts. He has tangled with the House speaker over slot machine gambling and with the Senate president over tort reform. He is enmeshed in a lawsuit with the Baltimore Sun after cutting off access to a columnist and a reporter writing about a land deal.
Partisan tension escalated after a bitter emergency session on the subject of rising malpractice insurance rates. Since the session ended two weeks ago, the parties have traded angry charges in news conferences and in paid political ads. Ehrlich has accused Democrats of sabotaging his initiatives for political gain, and Democratic lawmakers say the governor has exacted retribution in his budget.
That mood prompted the governor to devote the first six minutes of the speech to a rambling commentary on respect -- he repeated the word 13 times -- that appears nowhere in his prepared remarks. "Being treated with appropriate dignity when the governor appears before legislative committees is about respect," Ehrlich said. "Being treated with dignity when I enter a chamber -- thank you very much -- is about respect."
More than any other aspect of the speech, it was this section that preoccupied Democrats.
Some found it amusing. After the speech, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel) wandered press row in the State House singing the Aretha Franklin song "Respect" and called the remarks among the most bizarre he has heard during a State of the State address.
Others suggested that the lecture was misdirected. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said that if Ehrlich wants bipartisanship, he should start by changing the tone 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.
Busch said he wondered whether the call for cooperation "can continue past the rhetoric of the podium. We'll see in the coming weeks whether any of those standards will be upheld."
There were small signs, even before the speech, that the answer is no. For instance, seats were held in the gallery for top elected officials from across the state -- but not for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, two Democrats considered potential challengers to Ehrlich next year. O'Malley arrived moments before the speech began and gamely searched the gallery for his seat before settling into an empty chair behind a large marble column.
"Mine was an obstructed-view seat," the mayor joked. Later he told reporters he is "laying the groundwork to run for governor."