Tough times aren't necessarily producing votes for Ehrlich

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Robert Ehrlich talk about the impact of the recession on the Maryland economy and possible means of job creation.
By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 7:30 PM

Christopher Moylan knows the depths of the recession in Maryland. His wife's employer cut back her billing hours, leaving Lauri with $60,000 less in income. The Towson couple maxed out credit cards to cover their mortgage and living expenses for three kids. At work, he's a collections attorney who has pushed hundreds of fellow Marylanders to the brink, suing them to repay debts. Now he and Lauri have filed for bankruptcy.

Moylan is the voter that former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has spent the most time courting and needs desperately to turn his way before Nov. 2 to retake the office. Moylan can answer only "no" when asked the Reaganesque question Ehrlich poses in his latest ad: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"

Yet Moylan - like most of the likely voters hit hardest by the recession - says he is backing incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

"I think there's a common sense that we are all along for the ride together," Moylan said. "We all bought, we all spent. We all have basements full of Beanie Babies and where did it get us? Besides, Ehrlich's not an outsider, he's the same guy we had. . . . The Republicans don't have any better ideas how to fix this."

Strip away its 2-to-1 advantage for registered Democrats, its black-and-white divides and other filters most often used to shorthand Maryland elections and one slice of voters Ehrlich seemingly should have been able connect with - those hit hardest in the pocketbook - has remained decidedly elusive.

O'Malley on Friday put a familiar spin on the release of new jobless data that showed Maryland's private sector contracting and its unemployment rate continuing to inch upward, from 7.3 percent in August to 7.5 percent in September (following a string of better months earlier in the year). O'Malley emphasized that the state's rate remains more than two full percentage points below the national average.

Yet while Maryland routinely looks better than most other states, such monthly snapshots fail to capture the hundreds of thousands who have lost work and clawed back into Maryland's labor market at lower pay, or who have held on to jobs, but with furloughs or at reduced pay. Four in 10 likely voters in Maryland say someone in their home has lost a job or had hours or wages cut in the past year, according to Washington Post polls.

For O'Malley's nearly complete four-year term, the unemployment rate is more than double what is was on the day he took office and the state is down a net 79,400 jobs.

Despite those stark facts, Ehrlich hasn't effectively capitalized on the economy or been able to swing Maryland's many unemployed residents to his side.

In dozens of interviews statewide over the past month with those who have either lost jobs or have family members out of work, a three-part answer might best explain why Ehrlich's seemingly attractive platform of lower taxes and more jobs has failed to take hold among a swath of the state's economically challenged that is easily large enough to affect Maryland's election.

One: Unemployed and struggling voters aren't hearing Ehrlich's message, but they are hearing O'Malley's. Two: If they understand why Ehrlich says he's running, they don't necessarily believe he can deliver on taxes or jobs. And three: The skepticism seems rooted partly in O'Malley's negative portrayal of Ehrlich's record as governor and his work in the four years since for a law firm connected to oil and banking industries.

"The jobs are why people are so angry - and the health care, and all that," said Katherine Ferrell, 76, a Democrat in Queen Anne's County on the Eastern Shore. A retired "farmer's wife," Ferrell said she's doing what she can to help her daughter and grandson who have lost jobs in construction in the past year. Ferrell said she's seen O'Malley's ads and thinks he's doing well on education and as well as he can on the economy. "People need to give it a chance. It takes time," she said.

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