In Ehrlich's 2-Party Test Run, A Rough Ride but Few Regrets

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

Two weeks into his term as governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. headed to the Chesapeake Bay for one of the more unusual customs in his new hometown of Annapolis: the Polar Bear Plunge.

The man whose affable demeanor helped him become the state's first Republican governor in a generation waded gamely into 34-degree surf wearing little more than tight shorts and a smile. He then bounded barefoot back onto the beach, pumping wet fists and declaring to the crowd at the charity event: "That is cold; that is really cold."

Ehrlich's plunge into frigid water turned out to be an apt introduction to Annapolis, a town where he spent four years wrangling with Democrats. When he took office, he predicted that it would be an experiment, a test of whether Maryland would finally be hospitable turf for a Republican governor.

It wasn't. His key initiatives -- legalizing slot machines, tackling medical malpractice insurance costs, stabilizing electricity rates -- sank. Other efforts were more successful but couldn't erase the sense that Democrats in the General Assembly left him largely handcuffed.

Yet as he leaves office next week after being defeated in November's election, Ehrlich says he is confident that his loss was the result of the anti-Republican sentiment that swept the country and was largely beyond his control. Assessing his tenure during recent meetings with reporters, he said he had few regrets, if any. "The truth of it is, there's not a whole lot I would do differently," he said.

His accomplishments included a landmark Chesapeake Bay initiative establishing a sewer fee for bay cleanup, significant progress on the intercounty connector that will link interstates 270 and 95, and success in balancing the state's books without raising income or sales taxes. And despite his defeat, he remained popular with many voters.

In assessing Ehrlich's legacy, Democrats talked more of political dirty tricks, of the governor's feud with some in the news media and of an obstinacy with the legislature that, they said, sometimes bordered on bewildering. They recalled his impromptu 10-minute preamble to the State of the State address, in which he lectured lawmakers on respect.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) compared Ehrlich unfavorably with Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat who built a substantial legacy on his ability to work across the aisle with a Republican legislature.

As he leaves office, Ehrlich's most lasting imprint may be recognition of the jolt he delivered to the state's long-dominant Democrats.

A "shock to the system" was how former state senator Barbara Hoffman, a Democrat, described it.

"He planted the flag very clearly for a two-party system, and that's a good thing," said Rocky Worcester, an Ehrlich supporter who heads a nonpartisan advocacy group for business. "In Maryland, the absence of competition in politics and public policy had really become unhealthy."

Ehrlich's 2002 victory carried the potential of a new day for Maryland politics. The four-term congressman defeated then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on a platform of smaller government, more fiscal accountability and a promise of social moderation. Many who knew him during his two terms in the General Assembly recalled him as a consensus builder.

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