When Cornered, Ehrlich Shows His True Colors

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, July 7, 2005

The governor of Maryland, who is white, says the membership of an all-white Baltimore country club where he held a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser is "none of my business." The lieutenant governor, who is black, doesn't care about the club's membership. "It's not an issue with me," Michael Steele says.

The Elkridge Club in Baltimore is more than 100 acres of privilege where Maryland corporate chieftains retire to play golf, swim and dine with people like themselves.

"The past represents a tradition that cannot be quickly acquired," the club's official history says. That tradition includes 127 years without a single black member and a bar that remains all-male. Not until January did the club eliminate "gender-based membership" and grant member status to "spouses" of members.

"I don't know that much about the club, the membership, nor do I care, quite frankly, because I don't play golf," Steele told the Associated Press.

Ever since Gov. Bob Ehrlich raised $100,000 at a golf fundraiser at Elkridge last week, the governor has argued that the club's membership is not his concern.

He's right about private clubs -- they're private. If you and your friends want to get together and down martinis and exclude from the room anyone who doesn't look like you, you have a constitutional right to party on. But because you are excluding people on the basis of background, you have no right to ask the government to grant you privileges that are supported by taxpayers' dollars.

Since the Elkridge Club chose not to share its membership list with state authorities, as the Baltimore Sun reported, the club no longer enjoys an exemption from property taxes that the state makes available to some clubs.

So Elkridge is free to go its own way. But its members are accountable for their involvement in a group that has been searching for a qualified black for 127 years. That's why then-U.S. attorney Frederick Motz quit Elkridge in 1985 after he was nominated to the federal bench. Senators who quiz potential judges often don't take kindly to membership in all-white clubs.

Elkridge's president, Jay Wilson, is vice chairman of Mercantile Bankshares Corp., a Baltimore company that owns banks in Maryland and Northern Virginia. The company Web site says "a community bank is best defined by the quality of its community relationships." Mercantile employs "some of the community's most respected business leaders."

I wanted to know how Wilson and others at Mercantile square their desire to be respected business leaders with Wilson's position at the helm of a club that has no written policy on race but apparently doesn't view blacks as worthy of social relationships. Wilson was away and not available, but Mercantile's chairman, Edward Kelly III, issued this statement: "Your question is misguided and unfair, and Jay Wilson is a first-class professional and an extraordinary human being."

Maryland Democrats are gleeful over the governor's latest insensitivity. Baltimore County's executive, who similarly visited Elkridge, announced that he'd been wrong and wouldn't do it again. But partisan positioning is the least interesting part of this story.

The real question about Bobby Haircut's role in the Elkridge incident is why the governor consistently rebuffs opportunities to convince Marylanders that he seeks anything other than political gain. Whether he's trying to sell off state land, banning state workers from talking to reporters or wasting his and our time with his Gov. Goofy TV and radio ads -- "public service" spots for which taxpayers foot the bill -- this governor is about promoting himself and assuming that voters are driven by crass bias.

Let's assume no one on Ehrlich's staff bothered to tell the governor he was going to an all-white club. Ehrlich could have said, Hey, you know I'm no racist, I made history by picking a black lieutenant governor. I disapprove of this club and don't want to be associated with its policy. End of story.

Instead, Ehrlich goes on WBAL radio to say, "I don't know what their membership list is, and guess what -- it's none of my business, nor is it any of your business."

There are two explanations for that response: pique and politics. Neither is flattering.

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