Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s remarks last week dismissing multiculturalism as "crap" and "bunk" echoed across the state yesterday, as Democratic and Latino leaders demanded an apology and Ehrlich defended his comments as "utter common sense."
In Montgomery County, the County Council unanimously passed a resolution expressing "deep concern" over the governor's "ill-chosen remarks" and suggested "the phrase 'I'm sorry' as appropriate to the occasion."
In Baltimore, Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) addressed the issue -- in Spanish -- during his weekly radio address, saying, "Few of us would be here if our non-English-speaking relatives hadn't struggled for a few years -- or decades -- to learn English."
In Takoma Park, a half-dozen state and local Latino leaders and about 50 immigrant advocates gathered to decry Ehrlich's "far right" remarks and call for more resources to teach immigrants English.
And in Annapolis, reporters crowded around Ehrlich in the State House foyer, asking him to explain the comments he made on a call-in show on WBAL-AM radio Thursday.
"The words stand on their own," Ehrlich (R) replied. "It's a common culture, and the last message we want to send out is for people to separate themselves. We should celebrate the common American culture, the common American values and the common American language. I think that's common sense."
Ehrlich's original remarks about multiculturalism came in defense of a political ally, state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D). Schaefer had been criticized for his announcement a day earlier that he would no longer eat at McDonald's because of an uncomfortable encounter with a cashier struggling with English.
On the radio, Ehrlich said his views are "very similar to the comptroller's" and added, "I reject the idea of multiculturalism. Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, you run into a problem. With respect to this culture, English is the language."
Ron Smith, who hosts the conservative talk show on which Ehrlich spoke, said he was surprised at the governor's candor and said the station has received e-mails from listeners "glad to hear a politician tell the truth."
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Ken Witkin, a 66-year-old Air Force retiree who lives in Fort Washington, is among Ehrlich's supporters.
"I spent 30 years in the Air Force fighting communism," he said yesterday. "I gave up 30 years of my life, and I didn't give it up so I could start learning Spanish." He added, "Every single veteran I've talked to feels the same way."
At the same time, some of the governor's critics have been pilloried for their positions.
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), who spoke out against Ehrlich's comments last week, said she has received five "nasty messages," including some telling her and her "people to go back home."
CASA de Maryland, a Latino advocacy group, received two similar voice-mail messages, including one that insisted Schaefer "had it right" and they should "ship us to Iraq so we can be bombed on the front lines," CASA's Kimberly Propeack said.
Yesterday, Ehrlich said that the issue has "been hijacked by a politically correct crowd" and that he did not want "to get into this politically correct game."
He declined to wade back into a discussion of Schaefer's complaints about Spanish-speaking immigrants, but he did not back off his contention that immigrants should learn English.
Latino advocates agreed with that goal yesterday, but they said that Maryland is not providing enough resources. In Montgomery alone, 105,000 residents have "limited English" skills, yet the classes for adults who want to learn can accommodate only about 24,000 people, council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) said at the afternoon news conference in Takoma Park. Last year, according to a county report, 2,000 adults were on waiting lists for those classes.
"It's time to put your money where your mouth is," Perez said. "If indeed you want everyone to learn English, support the funding."
Politically, Ehrlich's remarks have provided fodder for his Democratic opponents, with two likely contenders in the governor's race, O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, already weighing in.
But one political scientist doubted that the controversy would do much harm to Ehrlich's standing with voters, especially his Republican base. "It's probably not something he should harp on all the time, but it doesn't seem to be a huge risk in the short term," said James G. Gimpel of the University of Maryland.
Still, the governor's remarks could hurt the GOP's efforts to bring more Latinos into the party, said Jorge Ribas, a Hispanic Republican from Montgomery. "The Republican Party is not going to grow with those kinds of comments," he said. "Those comments alienate people."
Last year, Ribas formed the Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus. But after he complained publicly that the governor had no Latinos in his Cabinet, GOP leaders ousted his group from the party and formed their own Hispanic caucus.