Ehrlich Is Inclined To Accept Port Deal

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. played down security concerns if a United Arab Emirates company takes over port operations in Baltimore.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. played down security concerns if a United Arab Emirates company takes over port operations in Baltimore. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday it is looking increasingly unlikely that he will try to block a United Arab Emirates company from taking over port operations in Baltimore.

Ehrlich (R) said he is continuing to review the security concerns raised by the proposed purchase by Dubai Ports World of the British company that oversees the movement of cargo containers at the Baltimore port.

But when asked yesterday if he now agrees with President Bush and supports the sale, Ehrlich said, "Clearly, the facts are moving in that direction."

The governor's view appears to be heading opposite that of Maryland Democrats, including leading state lawmakers and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who yesterday were voicing stern opposition to any agreement that put a company owned by the United Arab Emirates in charge of stevedoring operations.

"You don't let foreign countries have access to your borders, which is exactly what this is doing," said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

House Republicans in Annapolis sent their own letter, asking Bush to delay the port deal.

Late last night, Dubai Ports World offered to delay part of the deal in order to give Bush more time to convince members of Congress that the takeover of operations would pose no security risks. The company did not indicate how long it would wait.

Earlier yesterday, politicians from both parties on Capitol Hill continued to decry the deal. The transaction, set to take effect at six U.S. ports next week, was cleared by a Bush administration committee in January but became public just last week.

Ehrlich, who expressed anger this week about the "overly secretive process," played down any security threat yesterday and said O'Malley -- a potential opponent in this fall's election -- is "really behind the curve as far as the facts are concerned."

With a governor's race this year in Maryland, political jockeying appears to be inescapable. Party leaders on both sides have made efforts to appear tough on an issue that, at least on its surface, has homeland security implications.

Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), who chairs a legislative committee that oversees the port's budget, said there is a clause in Maryland's contract with Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. that says the company serves at the pleasure of the port. Ehrlich, he said, ought to exercise that option.

"I'm calling on him to exercise his power to break the contract with P&O," Franchot said. "Get an interim operator in and [seek bids] for a new company that is not owned by a foreign government."

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