Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vowed yesterday that he would "take down" Democratic lawmakers who question his administration's practice of firing state employees and replacing them with political allies.
The Republican governor used his one-hour talk-radio show on the Baltimore station WBAL to level the threat at leading Democrats, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert), House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel) and Sen. Brian E. Frosh (Montgomery).
The lawmakers, Ehrlich said, have "questioned my integrity. I will not put up with that any time, any place, under any context, regardless of my position. . . . And we are going to, believe me, take them down on this. Mike Miller, Mike Busch, all of them."
Democrats called the remark odd and appeared more amused by it than threatened.
"What's he going to do, short-sheet my bed?" Frosh laughed.
"He's not taking me down," Miller said. "I think he's being a bit oversensitive."
A special investigative committee of House and Senate members is preparing to undertake a formal review of the governor's personnel practices, particularly allegations that Ehrlich operatives moved through agencies to ferret out and fire employees considered disloyal.
Among those alleged to have served in that role was Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the longtime Ehrlich loyalist dismissed in February after boasting of an orchestrated effort to give "float" to rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
Ehrlich said yesterday that no evidence has surfaced to prove there was such an effort. He has also denied that Steffen influenced personnel decisions, although top aides agree that workers were expected to be loyal to the governor.
"People who are not loyal to this governor, people who do not believe in what this governor is trying to accomplish have no future in this administration. Never have," Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said in June.
The legislature's personnel investigation is in its earliest stage. Miller said yesterday that a loophole in personnel law, which predates Ehrlich, has left the governor with the power to fire 7,000 employees without explanation.
"We inadvertently created more at-will employees than the president of the United States has available to him," Miller said. "No one intended for state government to become a spoils system."
The problem was overlooked during a succession of Democratic administrations, and many lawmakers have had family members in state jobs. It drew notice in 2003 when Ehrlich became the first Republican governor in a generation. Ehrlich has fired 284 workers and forced out dozens more. His predecessor, Parris N. Glendening (D), fired 65 people in his first three years.
Longtime employees protested the firings to lawmakers. But Frosh said it wasn't until the state started losing court cases, filed by people claiming they were wrongly fired, that he became concerned. Miller agreed, saying protecting state employees is "the right thing to do."
"We had state employees approached by armed guards, ordered out of their desk chairs," Miller said. "These are people who deserved better treatment."
During the radio interview, Ehrlich confirmed that his chief counsel had written Frosh to question his ability to be impartial during the investigation. Ehrlich said he has "a strong suspicion" that Frosh knows the identity of the anonymous Web poster who prodded Steffen into discussing efforts to smear O'Malley.
Frosh denied that and called the discussion of the anonymous Web poster a "pretty transparent attempt to change the subject."