Ehrlich's Back-to-School Ad

By John Wagner
Friday, July 28, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. started airing a new television commercial yesterday that rekindled a rancorous debate with lawmakers and his Democratic opponent over control of Baltimore schools.

During its past session, the Democrat-led General Assembly moved swiftly to block a state seizure of 11 of Baltimore's lowest-performing schools. Ehrlich (R) vetoed the bill, but lawmakers overrode his veto, with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) playing an instrumental role behind the scenes.

Ehrlich's new ad, which is airing only in the Baltimore media market, uses a series of people to recount the episode, putting a pro-Ehrlich spin on what unfolded.

"Maryland has some of the best schools in the country," a woman says at the ad's outset.

"Unfortunately, some of the worst are here in Baltimore City," a man says.

As bleak scenes of Baltimore schools are shown, viewers are told that Ehrlich "wanted to fix our schools immediately." But "a few politicians stopped him."

The ad does not name O'Malley or Democratic legislative leaders, who said that the attempted state intervention was an affront to local control. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick , who initiated the move, said at the time that it was needed to improve dismal student performance at long-struggling high schools and middle schools.

The O'Malley campaign and Democratic lawmakers sharply criticized the ad, saying that it obscures progress that has been made in the system in recent years, particularly in lower grades.

"Instead of offering a plan for a way forward, [Ehrlich] hides behind negative ads attacking the hard work and progress of students, parents and teachers," O'Malley campaign manager Josh White said.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore) accused Ehrlich of using Baltimore schoolchildren as "political pawns" and called the ad "outrageous." He appeared with other state lawmakers at a news conference on the shared campus of two Baltimore high schools that are among the best in the state.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the governor's interest in the schools' fate is "heartfelt" and that he believes the legislature's action this past spring was among its most irresponsible since he took office.

The performance of Baltimore's schools is likely to remain a lively topic in the governor's race. The city's school board is jointly appointed by Ehrlich and O'Malley, but Ehrlich and his allies have tried to pin the system's woes on the mayor.

O'Malley is also on the air with a new ad this week, this one touting recently announced health-care proposals. His ad, too, is airing only in the Baltimore market, which reaches more than half of the state and is significantly less expensive than the Washington market.

Maryland Republican Party Chairman John Kane knocked O'Malley's new ad yesterday, saying: "Martin O'Malley's record on health care is worse than he would like to diagnose to the voting public."

In Steele, Democrats See Tangled Web

The buzz surrounding Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele 's once-anonymous criticism of President Bush continued unabated yesterday, with Democrats working to keep the story alive and the topic dominating conservative talk radio in Baltimore.

At a news conference, Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman accused Steele of being "untruthful" in a radio interview about the issue Wednesday. A news release put out by the party went a step further, saying that the Republican Senate hopeful had "lied through his teeth" during the appearance on WBAL (1090 AM).

At issue were Steele's comments on the radio suggesting that he had been blindsided by an article Tuesday in The Washington Post that identified him only as a Republican Senate candidate. Steele spoke at a luncheon Monday that had been billed as a "background" briefing for reporters who agreed not to quote him by name.

Steele said on WBAL that he considered the luncheon "off the record" and that Post reporter Dana Milbank "decided to stick his finger in my eye and the president's eye by going public with that conversation."

Yesterday, Lierman released a copy of an e-mail exchange between Milbank and Steele communications director Doug Heye in which they discussed which quotes might be used in the piece before it was published. The Democratic Party said it did not obtain the e-mail directly from The Post, but Heye confirmed its authenticity.

"Michael Steele is not being truthful, and he got caught," Lierman told reporters yesterday.

Steele campaign manager Michael Leavitt said in response that "once again, Democratic Party bosses are attacking Michael Steele's character because they are terrified of his broad following of supporters that bridges Republicans, and even their own Democrats."

Steele was also notably absent from a White House event yesterday at which Bush signed the extension of the Voting Rights Act. The event drew Republicans, Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights leaders.

Heye said the event had never been on Steele's schedule and that he spent the day in previously scheduled meetings.

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company