It didn't take long for Hurricane Katrina to blow into Maryland political campaigns.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) fired off a letter last week to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), whom Duncan hopes to unseat next year, urging him to update Maryland's emergency response plans.

Duncan declared himself "outraged" with the federal response to Katrina and told Ehrlich, "The simple truth is that state and local governments can no longer rely on the federal government for a timely and forceful response to a crisis."

Ehrlich, meanwhile, spent much of the week counseling people to hold off on recriminations about the heavily criticized relief effort.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate, apparently didn't heed the message. At a campaign event in Silver Spring, he blasted President Bush for an "outrageous" response.

"Government should have been there to help people, and it wasn't," Cardin said. "We can never let this happen again."

Lise Van Susteren of Montgomery County, another Democrat in the race, took matters into her own hands.

Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist, traveled to Houston to provide counseling to displaced residents from New Orleans, an aide said. She apparently was alerted to the need for counselors by her sister, Greta Van Susteren, a Fox News anchor on the scene.

The storm's aftermath also prompted a rare moment of unity between Maryland's Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman and his GOP counterpart, John M. Kane, who issued a joint statement promoting donations to flooding victims.

This directly from the news release: "We proudly stand united and ask all Marylanders to do the same," said Lierman and Kane (apparently speaking in unison).

The harmony didn't last long. The next day, Democrats blasted Carroll County Republicans for inviting House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) to headline a fundraiser.

Among the swings taken at DeLay: He canceled House hearings on Katrina.

Personnel Probe Faces Snarl

Democrats' pledge to end a legislative probe into Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's personnel practices in time for the January start of the next General Assembly session might become very hard to deliver.

Especially in light of the latest in a series of cryptic letters drafted by Ehrlich's chief counsel, Jervis S. Finney. In a four-page ramble to Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), who is co-chairing the probe, Finney says the whole investigation violates procedural rules -- especially the committee's plan to issue subpoenas.

Much of the letter reads like a draft of a legal brief, and some Democrats are predicting that when the first subpoena is sent, Finney will challenge it immediately in court. A court fight, in theory, could tie the proceedings in knots for months.

Finney did not return a call to his office seeking comment. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) says he's convinced "that's been their plan from the very beginning."

Robert Zarnoch, the legislature's lawyer, seemed pretty confident last month that everything the members are doing would stand up to judicial scrutiny, proclaiming he would defend the process "to my death."

A Crane by Any Other Name

If anyone can be counted on to throw a little unpredictability into a political event staged by press handlers, it is Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D).

Schaefer was joined by former member of Congress Helen Delich Bentley (R) at the Port of Baltimore last week to christen a giant cargo crane in honor of the late Hilda Mae Snoops, Schaefer's longtime companion.

Turns out five cranes at the port are named for prominent Maryland women, including one for Bentley and one for U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D).

One that was named for Snoops was decommissioned recently and sold to a port in Algeria for $100,000.

When Bentley was asked whether the dockworkers ever actually call the cranes by their names, she said, "Oh, no, no." A response that seemed to catch Schaefer off guard.

"What do you mean, no?" he scowled.

"They don't," Bentley said.

"Well, they'd better use it when I'm around!"

Do As I Say . . .

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) had some advice for motorists who are being squeezed by high gas prices: Stay out of the SUV.

When asked whether Steele would continue to use his state-issued Chevrolet Suburban, the lieutenant governor's press secretary took a pass.

"You're going to have to ask the Maryland State Police," said Reagan Hopper, Steele's spokeswoman. "That's up to them."