Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told a packed room of influential Montgomery County civic and political leaders yesterday that he won't use his first state budget to punish the Washington suburbs for overwhelmingly backing his opponent in last month's election.
"We're going to make it through this year with partnerships, not by holding political grudges," Ehrlich said. "That's how I operate."
The attempt at outreach helped ease tensions as Ehrlich, the first Republican to be elected Maryland governor in more than three decades, ventured into Montgomery County for the first time since more than 60 percent of its voters cast ballots for Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
A breezy and confident Ehrlich addressed the Gaithersburg audience filled with Democratic dignitaries, lightening the mood by asking if his visit would entitle him to become "an honorary citizen of Montgomery County."
"Any time you want it!" County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) shouted in reply.
But the cordial meeting did not completely resolve concerns among area Democrats that the new governor will use his budgetary power vindictively and deprive one of the state's most liberal-leaning counties of vital programs and financial support.
Maryland faces drastic action to offset a $1.7 billion budget shortfall, virtually guaranteeing Ehrlich a touchy relationship with the Washington region, where a hefty portion of state aid has gone under Democratic governors. Already, local leaders said they are frightened by Ehrlich's failure to offer many details of how he will pay for all the programs he has promised.
Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery) said Ehrlich would "have to use flimflam." And state Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) said that "it will take a lot of gimmicks to make it happen."
Both quickly seized on the language Lt. Gov.-elect Michael S. Steele used yesterday to describe how the new administration plans to fund its ambitious first-year agenda. "Budget magic," Steele said, would finance upgrades to Maryland's juvenile justice and mental health systems and provide full funding for the state's costly new education initiative -- all without increased sales or income taxes.
"There's going to have to be some kind of fiscal magic to make all those things happen," Duncan said. "If he follows through on what he's pledged, I think that would be tremendous. But the question remains, how will he pay for it?"
Among the deepest concerns, Hurson said, is that Ehrlich will devise a budget that not only makes cuts but also transfers more of the state's financial burden to its largest jurisdictions -- Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore. They also happen to be where Ehrlich's political support was thinnest.
A fear, he said, is that Ehrlich will borrow a budget-cutting tactic used 10 years ago by Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) and transfer the cost of teacher pension benefits from the state to the counties.
Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) described the simple budgetary maneuver as "a political nuclear bomb" for Montgomery County, where the pension costs would hit hardest.
Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick said that the idea has circulated on lists of budget tactics under consideration and that Ehrlich would not rule anything out. "But it is not on our active list," Schurick said.
Another factor coloring the relationship between Ehrlich and the Washington region is the emerging power of Duncan, who won easy reelection to a third term and used his political clout to defeat several of his rivals on the County Council.
Ehrlich made repeated references to the almost instant speculation among Democrats about the 2006 governor's race -- speculation that has included mention of Duncan as a likely contender.
"At least let me get sworn in" before the next campaign begins, Ehrlich said with a chuckle.
Still, Duncan and newly elected Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said they are hopeful that partisan politics will be off the table, at least for now. "He told me he's very excited about Prince George's County and he wants to help me on economic development," Johnson said. He added that Steele said he would be "my biggest advocate in Annapolis."
Ehrlich's local allies believe that by the time the governor finishes his term, he will have more, not less, support in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Rep. Constance A. Morella (R), defeated last month by Democrat Christopher Van Hollen Jr., said she believes Ehrlich will work to overcome the doubts of Democratic voters -- a skill she honed during her years representing the region in Congress.
"I think he's going to be fair and try not to be partisan," Morella said. "I think he'll rise above it."
John Kane, the Montgomery businessman who recently became head of the state's Republican Party, noted that the 38 percent of Montgomery County that Ehrlich carried is still 113,000 votes, more than he received in all but two of the state's counties.
"He knows how important it is to do right by Montgomery and Prince George's," Kane said.
As Ehrlich left the breakfast meeting, accepting greetings from several local business executives, he reiterated that his pledge was to dispense with the jurisdictional conflicts that have long dominated politics in Annapolis.
"We won't hurt a subdivision because of the way they voted," he said. "That's not my mind-set. That's not the way I think."
And some of the Democrats at yesterday's breakfast were ready to embrace that promise.
"I think there's a period of goodwill right now," Van Hollen said. "There's a willingness to extend an open hand. And then see what comes in return."