In January, when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is sworn in as Maryland's 60th leader, Republicans will gain control of the most powerful governorship in the nation. The job comes with a lot more than a nice house and a fancy office.
For the first time in 33 years, Republicans will shape the state budget, now set at $21.6 billion. They will wield authority over 25 state agencies and departments. And they could have the chance to appoint dozens of judges and more than 5,000 members of more than 600 boards and commissions, from the State Ethics Commission to the Calvert County Plumbing Board.
For eight years, those decisions have fallen to Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), one of the most liberal governors in the nation. Ehrlich campaigned as a moderate, but many in the Maryland GOP hold quite conservative views on such issues as abortion and gun ownership. Annapolis is bracing for big changes.
Ehrlich promises that his appointees will be "a very diverse group -- white, black, Republican, Democrat, Independent."
"But their general philosophical orientation is going to be something that I'm comfortable with, and obviously, that's going to be very different from Parris Glendening's," he said in an interview Friday. "There's going to be a marked change in the very hard left movement that's occurred. . . . That's going to be fairly dramatic."
Ehrlich said he will seek to energize the Department of Business and Economic Development, which he said has languished under Glendening's administration.
At the Department of Agriculture, Ehrlich said, farmers "have felt marginalized and demonized" by Glendening's environmental policies. Ehrlich has pledged to revisit state regulations that require farmers to craft elaborate plans regarding their use of fertilizers. The regulations were adopted to limit harmful runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.
The Department of Natural Resources has been "politicized" by anti-hunting forces, Ehrlich said. As governor, Ehrlich said he will "be listening to" hunters and directing the department to place "a renewed emphasis on conservation and preservation."
He is even considering declaring open season on black bears, a perennial issue before the General Assembly.
"Am I pro-bear or anti-bear?" Ehrlich joked. "I don't know yet."
Ehrlich said it is premature to discuss specific appointments. Many will be vetted by his transition team, which is being led by his running mate, Michael S. Steele, and James T. Brady, a former Cabinet official in the Glendening administration who also oversaw Glendening's transition in 1994.
Ehrlich advisers are already making good on his promise to reach across the aisle, a necessity in Maryland, where Republicans are heavily outnumbered not only among registered voters, but also among elected officials.
Come January, the Maryland GOP will hold only two of the state's eight congressional seats, and only 57 of 188 seats in the General Assembly. The party's bench is so shallow that it was unable to field serious challengers this year to Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., both Democrats.
Ehrlich is closely considering many Democrats for top jobs in his administration, including several lawmakers who served with him on the House Judiciary Committee during his tenure in Annapolis from 1987 until 1994. They run the ideological gamut, from Del. John S. Arnick (D-Baltimore County), a conservative from the suburbs, to Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. (D-Baltimore), a liberal from the city who lost in the September primary.
Republicans and Democrats alike are playing down the notion that the state's first Republican governor since Spiro T. Agnew will try to steer the ship of state sharply to the right. Democrats still control both houses of the General Assembly by overwhelming margins, after all, and Senate approval is required for Ehrlich's major appointments.
"I don't think anybody's coming into office whooping it up, thinking there's going to be some huge revolution," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard), a close adviser to Ehrlich's campaign who is also said to be in line for a top administration job.
"We have a balance of power here. We have a Democratic legislature and a Republican governor who promised that everyone is going to have a seat at the table," Flanagan said.
Throughout the campaign, Ehrlich talked constantly of restoring a sense of bipartisan bonhomie to the Annapolis State House after what he called eight years of partisan vindictiveness under Glendening.
Ehrlich has known Del. Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), the man who is likely to become the House speaker, for years. The pair partied together in Ocean City when they were young and single. With Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), Ehrlich shares an ardent desire to approve an expansion of legalized gambling.
"If it's Mike Busch, Mike Miller and Bob Ehrlich, I think cooperation will be the general mood," Ehrlich said.
Busch, a progressive Democrat, has said he will lead the fight against legalizing slot machines. But Miller, who is more conservative, has promised Ehrlich a honeymoon.
"Bob Ehrlich and his team are going to be given ample opportunity to prove themselves," Miller said. "There are going to be conversations and discussions. There will be trade-offs. . . . There's not going to be gridlock."
Still, Miller expects some lawmakers to attempt to rein in Ehrlich's power. They could revive a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would give the legislature authority to increase or cut the state budget. Currently, only the governor has authority to propose additional spending. The measure received preliminary approval from the Senate in the most recent legislative session but failed on final reading.
Another possibility: a measure that would make it illegal for lawmakers to trade their votes on gubernatorial policy initiatives in exchange for pet projects in the state budget.
Glendening won approval for much of his legislative agenda -- including such controversial items as strict gun-control laws and a law to bar discrimination against homosexuals -- by bargaining with lawmakers over the budget and redistricting.
"There's definitely a sentiment in the legislature that we've given the governor too much power," said lobbyist Gerard E. Evans. "I don't think this is a partisan thing. I think they want to rein in the most powerful governor in the land so they don't have a repeat of the last eight years. Although they may take a bit more glee in it," he added, because the new governor is a Republican.
Miller said a ban on vote-trading "is a good idea no matter who the governor is." But he said he would urge lawmakers to refrain from rewriting the rules of government until Ehrlich has a chance to prove that he can work with Democratic leaders.
"The people want the legislature and the governor to work together. They want cooperation," Miller said. "It would be wrong for a Democrat or anyone else to put those measures on the table at this time."