By John Wagner and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 8, 2010; B01
Former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged to cut the sales tax, double the number of charter schools and make the state friendlier to small businesses as he kicked off his campaign Wednesday to "recapture the State House."
"Welcome to history, part two," Ehrlich told a crowd of close to 200 people at Rockville Town Center for the official announcement of his rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Democrat who in 2006 ended Ehrlich's tenure as Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation.
Ehrlich, who appeared later at a far larger rally in his boyhood home of Arbutus, said he thinks he is "uniquely placed" to return to Annapolis to confront what he said is a culture of "unending excuses" and "petty politics that stand in the way of progress."
Acknowledging the tough fight ahead in a heavily Democratic state, Ehrlich said, "No one has promised me the governorship of the state would be easy, but most certainly it is worth it."
O'Malley, who spoke to reporters shortly after Ehrlich's announcement, said he welcomed Ehrlich to the race -- and continued to press a proposal to hold a live radio debate Saturday. Shortly after O'Malley floated the idea Tuesday, Ehrlich suggested the governor instead appear on the weekly radio show that Ehrlich co-hosts with his wife.
"I look forward to debating him this Saturday, if he's up for that and has the time -- or any other time when he's prepared to do so," O'Malley said in Annapolis. O'Malley sought to frame the race as a choice between two incumbents and reminded reporters that taxes and fees had been raised on Ehrlich's watch as well as his.
Although Ehrlich's comeback had been telegraphed for weeks, his morning speech in Rockville was the first time he offered specifics about what he would do with another four years. He promised to seek to roll back the state sales tax from 6 to 5 percent. That's where it stood before a special legislative session in 2007 during which the Democrat-led General Assembly raised multiple taxes with O'Malley's support to help close a yawning budget gap.
At the time, legislative analysts projected the sales tax increase would eventually yield more than $800 million a year in new revenue for the state.
O'Malley defended the move Wednesday as "tough but correct," saying Maryland's tax rate had been among the lowest in the nation. "We did raise it by a penny, and had we not you'd be reading about Maryland in the same category as, as California and other states that are going splat because of their inability to be fiscally responsible," he said.
To expand educational opportunities, Ehrlich said he would double the number of charter schools, which has grown to 42 since he proposed the state's law allowing their creation in 2003. Thirty-three of those schools are in Baltimore. Prince George's County has the state's second-highest number, with four.
O'Malley said most of the growth in charter schools had actually occurred during his term. "We have some really great ones," he said.
Ehrlich also pledged that small businesses would again have a friend in the State House and that he would work to balance the budget "with no gimmicks." He offered few details in those areas but said, "I will treat our small businesses as a source of new jobs, while the incumbents in Annapolis treat them as a source of new tax revenue."
O'Malley ticked off several initiatives he said are helping small businesses, including a new tax credit that will provide companies $5,000 for each worker they hire off the unemployment rolls. "I'm proud of what we've done," O'Malley said.
Ehrlich credited his wife, Kendel, with providing much of the inspiration for his attempted comeback. He said that after his 2006 loss, "I thought my public career was most likely over." But, Ehrlich said, his wife "explained to me a couple of years ago that we're not done."
Some Ehrlich supporters cast his comeback attempt in even grander terms.
"Bob Ehrlich, like Winston Churchill, has had his wilderness years," Howard A. Denis, a former Montgomery County Council member and state senator, told the crowd in Rockville. Much like the famous British politician, Denis predicted, Ehrlich will be back. He introduced him to the crowd as "our former and future governor."
In both Rockville and Arbutus, Ehrlich said that his campaign was about the future and that he was not seeking to avenge his 2006 loss.
Speaking at an American Legion hall in Arbutus, Ehrlich said small-business owners "don't want to hear that grudge-match stuff."
"They want change in Annapolis, and we're going to deliver it," Ehrlich told his supporters, many of whom waved signs reading "Ehrlich Again in 2010."