Mr. Ehrlich's Legacy

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr., the only incumbent governor to lose his job in the fall elections, begins a new life as a private citizen this week, having spent two decades holding elective office in Maryland as a state lawmaker, a congressman and, for the past four years, chief executive. As governor he compiled a mixed record, distinguished by a number of significant achievements but diminished by misjudgments and self-inflicted wounds.

A Republican, Mr. Ehrlich was defeated in November by a popular Democrat in a solidly Democratic state in an overwhelmingly Democratic year. In other words, his loss was not exactly a personal repudiation, and even in defeat he remained broadly popular with Maryland voters. His appeal is partly a tribute to his charisma, which is of the regular guy, former football captain variety, and partly the result of his good fortune to govern during a period of robust economic growth.

Mr. Ehrlich was friendly to business interests -- too friendly for some tastes -- but hardly dogmatic in his Republicanism. That was evident in his innovative idea of imposing a broad-based fee on households, the so-called flush tax, to pay for upgrades in sewage plants that spill pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay. It was evident, too, in his admirable record of granting pardons and commutations for convicted criminals. For a Republican in a state dominated by Democrats, he appointed plenty of Democrats to positions in his administration.

Mr. Ehrlich's detractors tend to take some of his successes for granted, such as his forging ahead with the highway to connect Interstates 270 and 95 north of the District or enacting legislation authorizing charter schools in Maryland. But in the case of the highway -- the intercounty connector -- the governor had to overcome decades of inertia and political opposition to revive the project and secure the necessary approvals. And in the case of charter schools, he went ahead despite the opposition of some local school boards. Taken together, the fruits of Mr. Ehrlich's pragmatic determination will be more options for Maryland motorists, parents and students.

Still -- and we say this despite having endorsed him for reelection -- in other ways his is a disappointing legacy, tainted by the sense that he could have accomplished more. He was a poor manager of his relations with the legislature, and that sapped what modest political capital he brought to the job. Always ready to personalize political fights, he reveled in partisan conflict when sober dealmaking and restrained rhetoric would have better served his interests.

In valedictory interviews, Mr. Ehrlich has spoken, at times bitterly, about the toxic partisanship that has supplanted what he remembers with nostalgia as the bipartisan comity of his days as a young lawmaker in Annapolis in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, he was no small contributor to the partisan venom. In a state such as Maryland, that was a serious miscalculation, and it did nothing to improve his reelection chances. Neither did some of the battles he picked, including futile ones to expand legal gambling in the state, to freeze out a reporter at the Baltimore Sun whom he disliked and to sell off state-owned land to a well-connected developer.

Mr. Ehrlich says there's little he would do differently if he had it to do over again. That means that he's either too stubborn to admit mistakes publicly or that he didn't learn much from four years in office. We hope it's the former.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company