Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is expanding his own version of reality television. He is appearing in another series of ads promoting state programs, despite criticism from Democrats that the spots also are designed to give him extra face time with voters in a political season.
Ehrlich (R) can already be seen on cable systems throughout the state touting the virtues of Maryland tourism and the Motor Vehicle Administration. Starting today, he'll encourage residents to purchase energy-efficient homes. Within the next few days, he'll star in a spot promoting the Oct. 9 Maryland Million horse race.
The price tag for all this time in Maryland living rooms will approach $3 million -- the bulk of which pays for a tourism campaign that will run through year's end. Each spot is carefully vetted by the governor's in-house marketing team, led by a former national Republican Party television advertising specialist.
All the commercials portray the governor in a similar manner: as a chummy, regular guy who pops up unexpectedly to help with household chores or provide friendly advice. Most conclude with Ehrlich issuing a pithy punch line. In one, he tells viewers, "You know, I really love my job." In another, he says: "Do other governors go this far? I think not."
Democrats say this aspect of the ads smacks of self-promotion. When the tourism spots started appearing, state Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett called on the governor to take them off the air in Maryland.
Yesterday, Leggett said he would ask the legislature to tighten the rules on the incumbent's ability to capitalize on state promotions. The ads, he said, are so blatantly self-serving that they are "tantamount to election-year campaigning."
Ehrlich brushes off suggestions that he's spending taxpayer dollars for thinly veiled campaign ads.
"They're fun," Ehrlich said recently, when asked why he does so many. "And I think I'm pretty good at it."
Ehrlich has declined the Democrats' request to cancel the tourism ads in Maryland. His aides said those circulate on stations here inadvertently, because of a national cable television buy that includes Baltimore Orioles games.
While the tourism spots are relatively costly, with the total one-year contract calling for $2.7 million, the other new commercials have been less expensive and more creatively financed.
Five home builders contributed a combined $6,000 to the state Energy Administration commercial that will go into rotation today on Baltimore area stations. The ad urges consumers to help the environment and save money by purchasing energy-efficient homes. The names of the companies appear on-screen at the end of the ad.
Another contribution came from Fox television's Baltimore affiliate, owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., which produced the ads at no cost on the condition that the state purchase $60,000 worth of time on the station to air them.
Michael Richard, director of the Maryland Energy Administration, said this was a standard offer that the station makes to many customers.
But Leggett said he was troubled by the arrangements with contributors, especially Sinclair Broadcasting. Two years ago, Ehrlich was chastised by federal regulators for intervening on Sinclair's behalf in a licensing dispute and then accepting use of the company's helicopter during his race for governor.
A call to the station's manager yesterday was not returned.
Richard said an additional $30,000 of the costs are covered by a federal environmental grant, and $24,000 is from a "public benefits fund" established during the Pepco-Conectiv merger.
Leggett said he believes this kind of television airtime is, essentially, a political contribution as well. "My opinion is that the money needs to be counted as a campaign contribution," he said. "The commercials are so blatantly self-promoting, it really is his way of avoiding campaign laws."
To the contrary, said Ehrlich communications director Paul E. Schurick. These ads serve a valuable public purpose and have starred Maryland governors for many years. He said he has a stack of tapes in his office of commercials starring former governor Parris N. Glendening (D).
Schurick, sounding a bit like a Hollywood agent, said the governor's budding show business career will continue unabated.
"We've had some other offers," he said. "We're still looking them over."