Democrats Criticize Ehrlich's Taxpayer-Funded Ads

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plays a beach hotel clerk advising vacationers to leave their homes early to avoid traffic.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plays a beach hotel clerk advising vacationers to leave their homes early to avoid traffic. (Maryland Transportation Authority)
By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006

Flip through the pages of Ladies Home Journal, stroll the streets of Baltimore or surf the television dial -- there's almost nowhere a Marylander can go these days and not come across an advertisement bearing the name and smiling face of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

These aren't campaign spots; those will be saturating the airwaves soon enough, as he and a dozen other candidates begin vying for voters' attention. These are state-funded ads meant to promote tourism, affordable housing, E-ZPass and, Democrats say, the governor.

The pace of advertising appears to have quickened in recent months, and the practice has become a fresh source of strain between the Republican governor and Democratic state lawmakers.

State Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) calls it "a campaign advertising onslaught" and says he finds it "obscene" that it's all being billed to the taxpayers. Frosh supports a move the General Assembly took last month that will effectively outlaw the ads beginning in July.

During a news conference last week, Ehrlich vowed to continue the marketing regime, calling it a benefit of incumbency that he has every right to enjoy, just as his Democratic predecessors did.

"I will not abide by one set of rules for Democratic governors and another for Republican governors," Ehrlich said.

He has proceeded unabated. This month, he unveiled the latest 30-second TV spot, a $725,000 endeavor that employs the slogan, "Go early, stay late."

In the ad, Ehrlich plays a chipper beach hotel clerk advising a family of vacationers to leave their homes early to avoid peak traffic on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

It is a reprisal of the role he played in slickly produced tourism ads two years ago, including ones that aired in Maryland. They presented Ehrlich as a grinning Johnny-on-the-spot, willing to take over the weekend chores of unsuspecting Marylanders so they could enjoy a free day touring the state.

He grins as he delivers the punch line: "Do other governors do this? I think not."

The image he conveys in the ads is similar to the one he presents on the stump, Democrats say. And the tourism campaign seems increasingly to be designed to help Ehrlich politically, they say.

More than $100,000 in magazine ads, for instance, were circulating last month in publications that target women. Not only Ladies Home Journal but also such titles such as Cooking Light.

In them, Ehrlich is pictured at the top of the page, introducing a variety of slogans. In the cooking magazine, for instance, the headline reads, "Maryland's Governor Ehrlich Says: Put the Honey-Do List Down and Bring Your Honey to Maryland." The text surrounds a photo of a smiling couple cracking into a table full of steamed crabs.

The magazine ads come as Ehrlich is at his weakest with female voters. A recent poll by the Annapolis firm Opinion Works shows that when matched against Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), Ehrlich gets just 27 percent of the vote from women.

Ehrlich aides have said such ads are nothing new: They have a stack of tapes showing then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in state promotions. Frosh and other Democrats counter that the Ehrlich marketing effort is significantly more far-reaching.

"They've taken this to a new level," Frosh said.

Ehrlich is also featured on ads posted inside and outside Maryland Transit Administration buses in Baltimore and on light rail platform billboards -- a $34,500 campaign to promote an affordable housing program.

In February, he filmed public service announcements at a state prison for a program called "Be Smart, Choose Freedom," described as an ad campaign "to influence young adolescents from making wrong choices and ending up in jail."

The TV ad promoting easy travel to the Eastern Shore is Ehrlich's second. In last year's version, he was joined by Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), who is facing a reelection challenge from at least two Democrats. This year, it's former governor Marvin Mandel.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said the General Assembly moved to halt the ads because lawmakers think that, when viewed in total, they appeared to be politically motivated.

"It's a tremendous abuse of taxpayer money," Miller said.

To address the concern without risking a veto from Ehrlich, lawmakers put language into the state budget that says no state money can be spent to produce or distribute ads featuring a candidate for public office until Jan. 10. Similar provisions are in place in Connecticut, Louisiana, Illinois, Nevada, North Carolina and Rhode Island, according to Maryland policy analysts.

Ehrlich called the restriction "pitiful." He said his lawyers are checking to see whether they need to stop handing out road maps at state rest stops because the maps have his picture on the front. (The budget language applies to promotions on billboards, radio and television and in magazines and newspapers.)

"We are not going to abide by small partisan maneuvers implemented by small partisan people," Ehrlich said.

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