Ehrlich's tenure as Maryland governor could serve as foundation for a 2nd term

Gov. Martin O'Malley and former governor Bob Ehrlich discuss immigration reform and the assimilation of "New Americans" at the Maryland Gubernatorial Debate hosted by Washington Post Live on Oct. 14, 2010.
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 8:37 PM

Nineteen months after Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was voted out of office, fans of the former Maryland governor packed an auditorium for the unveiling of an official portrait that showed, quite literally, how he would like his time in Annapolis to be remembered.

Ehrlich is depicted sitting casually on his desk, where three pieces of signed legislation are visible. The bills launched Maryland's charter schools program, created a fund to upgrade the state's wastewater treatment plants and established a Cabinet-level department to help people with disabilities.

Those laws are part of Ehrlich's legacy, but even he says they offer a rather incomplete picture of his four rancor-filled years as Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation.

Ehrlich's frequent clashes with Democratic majorities in the legislature were a defining part of his tenure, limiting the scope of his accomplishments and turning Annapolis into a more partisan town. That experience offers a window into how Ehrlich might govern in a second term if he wins back the job he lost to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in 2006.

To his supporters, Ehrlich served as a much-needed check against the worst instincts of the state's "Democratic monopoly." His detractors say he was an obstacle that Democratic lawmakers increasingly found a way around.

Ehrlich vetoed 86 Democratic initiatives, including measures that sought to hold down university tuition by raising corporate taxes and to force Wal-Mart to provide better health benefits. About a quarter of those vetoes were overridden, including initiatives to raise the state's minimum wage and to allow early voting in state elections.

"On issues where it was possible to compromise, we did," Ehrlich said in an interview. "But on other things, we saw it as our job to stop things. You have to have a foundation. . . . They weren't acclimated in Annapolis to having a Republican governor."

Democratic leaders have signaled that Ehrlich would face resistance on a key campaign promise if elected Nov. 2: rolling back the state sales tax from 6 to 5 percent. Ehrlich has not said how he would pay for it, and lawmakers say they are wary of adding to a projected budget shortfall next year of more than $1 billion.

Taking stock

Looking back at his tenure as governor, Ehrlich expressed few regrets and said he was able to get "most of the things that really mattered to me."

He has repeatedly pointed to a survey from the University of Baltimore in which 74 percent of Maryland companies said the state was "business friendly" in 2006, his final year in office. Four years later, that figure is 31 percent. Ehrlich has pledged a return to the days when state agencies that regulate businesses saw their role "as a partner, not a sheriff."

He said the most enjoyable part of the job was recruiting businesses to Maryland and promoting the state as a tourism destination - which he did through a series of off-beat TV ads, derided by Democrats, in which he played a starring role.

Ehrlich's central accomplishment on transportation, the Intercounty Connector, also leveraged the power of the executive branch. After he used his Republican connections to lobby then-President Bush, a federal environmental review of the long-stalled project was fast-tracked, clearing the way for a groundbreaking before Ehrlich left office.

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