An organized campaign by environmental activists to defeat Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s nominee for secretary of the environment has prompted a top Ehrlich aide to declare yesterday the activists will not have "a seat at the table" in the administration.
"These guys had a chance to work with Ehrlich, and they've blown it," said communications director Paul E. Schurick. "They have made it clear that they don't want a relationship with this administration. Their message has been received loud and clear."
Schurick said Ehrlich will not seek or consider the input of environmental groups when taking actions that affect the Chesapeake Bay, air quality or other such matters. He said a coalition of 10 organizations representing tens of thousands of Marylanders -- including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Sierra Club, 1000 Friends of Maryland and the Audubon Naturalists Society -- had proven to be "bomb throwers" with no interest in being "a real partner with this administration."
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, called Ehrlich's decision to sever ties "a little shortsighted."
"Environmental issues are really important in Maryland. And if he's going to write off the environment 45 days into his term, that's going to be a real political problem for him," she said.
Ehrlich yesterday did not echo Schurick's remarks but launched an all-out campaign to win confirmation of Lynn Buhl, a mid-level state official from Michigan and former automotive industry lawyer whom Ehrlich has selected to lead the Department of the Environment.
Ehrlich said he did not expect support from environmental groups, given their chilly relations with Republicans. "It's simply a general thing where they don't like someone who reflects Ehrlich's priorities," he said. "That's the bottom line."
Ehrlich won election last fall as Maryland's first GOP governor in more than three decades over the active opposition of environmental groups, many of which endorsed Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
Nonetheless, Ehrlich courted activists after taking office in January, Schurick said, addressing a legislative forum on the environment and introducing activists to Buhl and Ehrlich's choice for her deputy, Kendl P. Philbrick, an executive for a property management subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp.
Buhl met with advocates again on Wednesday in the governor's reception room at the State House. At the close of that meeting, administration officials asked the groups to support her next week, when she faces a hearing before the Senate committee that vets nominations.
On Thursday, the groups delivered their answer.
"We sincerely appreciate the opportunity to meet with these candidates," the groups wrote in a letter to the governor's office. "After serious consideration, however, we feel strongly that your nominees lack both the experience required to manage an agency of this size and the credibility to bring together all the stakeholders."
That response infuriated Ehrlich aides, who believe the governor has worked hard to reach out to environmental groups.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker said that he believed Schurick might have been reacting at the end of a long, stressful week in which the administration was under intense pressure to deliver its plan for slot machine gambling. But he said he hoped Schurick would rethink his comments.
"Certainly, we've tried to be an honest broker and give him our reactions [to Buhl], which were invited," Baker said. "I'm sure they just didn't like the answer."
Buhl, a former attorney for the Chrysler Corp., spent the past three years as an undersecretary in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, an agency known for rolling back and weakening restrictions on business pollution. Buhl has promised to be less antagonistic toward businesses in Maryland than her predecessors. Yesterday, Ehrlich paid a visit to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) to make his case for Buhl, while top aides lobbied other senators. Ehrlich said he is optimistic Buhl will be confirmed.
Nominations committee Chairman Philip C. Jimeno (D-Anne Arundel) called Buhl's prospects "a tossup."
"I suggested last week that the governor needed to start to count votes on this nominee," Jimeno said. "She's got to come in and make her case."
Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.