For Governor in Maryland

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

WHEN HE RAN for governor of Maryland four years ago, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s claim to the job seemed to rest on little more than a sense of entitlement and a telegenic, genial personality. In fits and starts, though, he has grown in the role to become a generally proficient, pragmatic governor, if not always a disciplined or mature one. He has chalked up successes on transportation, the environment and education, among other things. For Mr. Ehrlich, the state's first Republican governor in a generation, those are real achievements -- particularly when weighed against the monolith of Democratic dominance in the state legislature. His opponent in the gubernatorial race, Democrat Martin O'Malley, is a smart, adroit politician who has compiled a creditable record as mayor of Baltimore for the past seven years, but he has not made a compelling case for toppling the incumbent. Our choice is Mr. Ehrlich.

No doubt Mr. Ehrlich has had the good fortune to govern during good times. Having inherited a crushing deficit upon taking office in 2003, he benefited over the next three years from a muscular national economy that lifted Maryland, as it did most states, and pumped up the public coffers in Annapolis. Still, Mr. Ehrlich helped his own cause by raising funds through higher taxes and fees, breaking with his party's knee-jerk anti-tax orthodoxy and using the proceeds constructively. Despite having squandered time, energy and political capital in pushing fruitlessly to expand state-sanctioned gambling in Maryland, the governor did manage a number of victories.

Mr. Ehrlich was able to revive, accelerate and push through approval of a highway to connect interstates 270 and 95 north of the District, which would be the first major road to be built in the Maryland suburbs in years and one that is badly needed. Though it had been on the state's drawing board for decades, the intercounty connector was a dead letter when Mr. Ehrlich took office. On the environment, Mr. Ehrlich rightly claims authorship of the "flush tax" bill, under which households pay a $30 annual fee to finance upgrades in sewage plants that pollute the Chesapeake Bay; it represents an important step toward cleaning the state's waterways.

On education, Mr. Ehrlich pushed through a law to allow charter schools in Maryland, providing more options for parents and students despite the opposition of some local school boards. We have also noted Mr. Ehrlich's courage in issuing more pardons and commutations for convicted criminals than his two predecessors together managed in 16 years in office. In an era when most governors are more preoccupied with punishment and establishing their bona fides as tough guys, Mr. Ehrlich's practice of dispensing mercy is exemplary.

There have been disappointments and dithering during Mr. Ehrlich's term as well, mostly of his own making. Relishing battle and cherishing his status as a besieged underdog, he picked fights needlessly, as in the childish blacklisting of two journalists from the Baltimore Sun. Likewise, his tiresome quarrels with the leaders of the General Assembly look more like clashes of puffed-up egos than hard legislative bargaining. Mr. Ehrlich could be a more effective governor if he applied himself more to the mechanics of governing and less to the skewering of his enemies on talk radio.

Mr. O'Malley, who has run a carefully scripted campaign for governor, has put his plentiful ambition to good use in one of the toughest big-city mayor's jobs in the nation. He made progress in stanching Baltimore's outflow of population, reviving some of its more blighted neighborhoods, reducing its level of violent crime, and adapting corporate methods of efficiency and accountability to the functions of government. Mr. O'Malley did not solve the problems of rampant crime and rough schools in Baltimore, but he put a dent in them.

As a candidate, however, Mr. O'Malley, nursing a lead, has been cautious, at times excessively so. He has balked at grappling with the tough budgetary choices he would be likely to face as state spending soars for education and health care. He favors slot-machine gambling, though only at racetracks, and so presents little advantage on that score. He has remained Baltimore-centric, offering little of substance about the Washington area's problems, especially its choked roads and transit systems. While it is easy to admire Mr. O'Malley's fluency as a public speaker and his winning ways on the stump, his campaign is seen by some of his own allies as insular -- a worrisome trait in a governor.

More worrisome yet is the fact that an O'Malley victory would herald a return to the brand of one-party Democratic rule that has served the state poorly in the past. Mr. Ehrlich, for all his faults, has shaken up the old guard in Maryland politics -- while appointing plenty of Democrats to his cabinet and judgeships. If he were wise, he would use a second term to start anew with the legislature and build on his record of achievement.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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