Ehrlich Swerves Toward Middle

By Matthew Mosk and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced late yesterday that he would champion spending $20 million in state money on stem cell research, taking what appeared to be a sharp turn toward the political center.

But it is a direction he's been traveling at high speed over the past 10 days as he's rolled out his election-year agenda.

The Republican governor who has accused Democrats of profligate spending has made almost daily pledges to seed new programs and bulk up others: $280 million for school construction; $172 million more for higher education; $98 million to pay for a property tax cut; $90 million more to support the disabled; $14 million for the arts; and $700,000 to track sex offenders.

As the General Assembly convenes in Annapolis today for its annual 90-day session, lawmakers are seeing a new Bob Ehrlich. One who Republicans say has been set free by a fresh budget surplus to define his priorities. One who Democrats say is reinventing himself in an election year.

"You can't run for reelection on a platform of 'I didn't,' " said Barbara Hoffman, a former Democratic state senator who now lobbies the legislature. "He needs some 'I did's.' That's what we're seeing from him now."

For three years, the governor's relationship with Democratic legislators has been poisonous. They have sparred over administration initiatives to legalize slot machines and limit legal payouts to those suing doctors. Ehrlich has objected strenuously to a legislative investigation of his personnel moves -- including allegations that he fired some state workers to clear room for party loyalists.

But this year, as Ehrlich gets set to formally launch his reelection bid, Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation appears poised to engage the legislature with a new approach. He has crafted an agenda that leaves Democrats little room for combat.

"It's a good election-year agenda for him," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). "As a conservative Republican, he needs Democratic voters to have any chance of winning reelection. . . . The only way he's going to do that is getting to the middle, which this is all about."

Miller said the governor will likely succeed on several fronts, including heightening monitoring of sex offenders and increasing education spending. "It's not extensive, but it touches all the right buttons."

That's not to say there won't be tension, or even open hostility. That will be clear almost immediately as the legislature attempts to override Ehrlich's vetoes on five bills. Among the measures: a bill that would raise the minimum wage by $1 an hour and one that would force Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health benefits.

And the governor has said he will renew his push for slot machines and medical malpractice changes, although those efforts will not take center stage. In an interview, Ehrlich said the state's improved fiscal outlook has allowed him to steer more money toward his priorities than in the past. But he said this session will be only "a piece" of what he runs on.

Briefing the GOP caucus in Annapolis yesterday, he advised: "Don't be afraid to engage on this record. It is a very good record."

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