The charm offensive has begun.
Late Friday afternoon, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. bounded into the Department of Budget and Management to nibble cookies and sip Coca-Cola with about 70 state workers who gathered in a conference room to greet the new governor.
After reading about the pink slips delivered by the new Republican administration to colleagues in other agencies, some of the workers couldn't help but feel a little jittery. But Ehrlich made clear that he considers survivors of the purge to be "quality professionals" who deserve his respect.
Ehrlich lavished praise on the department's new boss, budget secretary Chip DiPaula Jr., who is awaiting Senate confirmation. Ehrlich also thanked department employees for helping his team put together a nearly $23 billion budget proposal in the short time between the November election and Jan. 17, the constitutional deadline for introducing the budget to the General Assembly.
"I thank you for making us look good," Ehrlich told the crowd. "We want to make government employee-friendly again."
After Ehrlich made a few jokes and other introductory remarks, the employees lined up to shake his hand, ask for autographs and assure him that they'd cast their ballots for the GOP ticket. Most seemed genuinely pleased that the governor cared enough to pay a visit. Ehrlich intends to hit the Department of Natural Resources next and to make the rounds at every agency within the next few weeks.
"I have been a state employee for 25 years, and he's the first governor who's ever made an effort to say hi," said technical services manager Debbie Hemler-Wheeler. "It really means something to people."
Still, there were a few awkward moments, such as when one woman told Ehrlich he was even cuter in person than on TV.
"Hey, Chip, give this woman a raise!" Ehrlich yelled, apparently forgetting that he had cut salary increases for state workers out of his budget plan.
Then there was the white board at the back of the room, which sported two bumper stickers: "Happiness is a Republican governor." And "W, 2004."
"Somebody must have gotten a little over-enthusiastic," DiPaula said.
Memorabilia With New Meaning
Before the party, Ehrlich visited DiPaula's spacious first-floor office, which has already been decorated with memorabilia from DiPaula's long years in Republican politics. There are photos of him with President Bush and with Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, and there are framed mementos from the GOP national conventions DiPaula helped organize.
From the 2000 convention in Philadelphia, DiPaula has a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. From the 1996 convention in San Diego, DiPaula has a framed poster from a Clint Eastwood movie, signed by the actor.
DiPaula said the poster was given to him by the Secret Service in recognition of his willingness to work with them on convention security. As he faces a Democratic legislature and $1.8 billion budget shortfall, DiPaula said he thought the poster was an appropriate addition to the office of the first Republican budget secretary in more than 30 years.
The movie? "In the Line of Fire."
The Casual State of the State
State House observers were floored by Ehrlich's State of the State address. His failure to mention either the state's dire fiscal condition or his proposal to raise new revenue by legalizing slot machines was the main topic of conversation.
But more than a few people also bemoaned the casual way Ehrlich tossed off his first address to a joint session of the centuries-old Maryland General Assembly.
"There was no sense of the office, no sense of the moment, no sense of history," said a lobbyist who has been around Annapolis for much of the past decade. One Democratic lawmaker said Ehrlich lived up to his reputation as "the frat boy on the second floor."
Ehrlich's infractions came mainly in the warm-up to the speech, as he was greeting the assembled dignitaries and handing out gifts. A few examples from the transcript:
1. Though House rules prohibit the use of names on the House floor, Ehrlich referred to State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) by her first name at least four times. To wit: "Anybody I forgot? Nancy! Oh, my God, I just got evil eyes there."
2. Ehrlich repeatedly made goofy asides that likely were incomprehensible to most people watching on TV, much less anyone reading the speech 100 years hence.
For example: "Comptroller [William Donald] Schaefer. Now, wait a second, wait a second. Whoa, whoa, whoa. I think there's something going on between those two. Mr. Comptroller, you were right about jumping into the bay. I will listen next time, I promise."
3. It's all about Bob. Bob and his hometown of Arbutus.
"Where's the speaker pro tem? The speaker pro tem is from Arbutus," Ehrlich said. "Arbutus does rule."
4. No, wait! It's all about Bob being a baby boomer.
"Attorney General [J. Joseph] Curran. I was able to swear the attorney general into office yesterday. It's his 45th year of public service -- and I am 45 years old!"
5. No, wait! It's all about Bob and Kendel.
"Delegate [Kevin] Kelly used to introduce Kendel Sibiski every time she came into the chamber. And he would get up on the floor and say, 'I'd like to reintroduce, still the fiancee of Delegate Ehrlich.' And Delegate Kelly, today she is not only still the wife of Governor Ehrlich, but she's the first lady of the state!"
"It's nice to be back home in this chamber," Ehrlich concluded before plunging into prepared remarks that were substantially more dignified.