Resting atop one of many television sets in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s press office these days is a black metal tray with this handwritten white label: "Doug's inbox."
The "Doug" to which it refers is none other than Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, one of two major Democrats seeking to unseat Ehrlich (R) next year. Inside the tray sits a growing stack of letters -- none of them answered -- from someone who has become one of the governor's most prolific letter-writers.
"It's like the poor kid who keeps writing to Santa and never hears back," said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell.
Just since May, Duncan has written to urge Ehrlich to join a regional cooperative aimed at reducing global warming, to step up policing of Maryland power plants, to restore Medicaid health benefits for certain immigrant women and children and to appoint members to a panel that is supposed to be studying pay gaps between the sexes.
Duncan, in writing, also has asked Ehrlich to remove an appointee who used a racial slur and to apologize for holding a fundraiser at an exclusive golf club that has had no black members in its 127-year history. Most recently, he wrote to express outrage over the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina and urged Ehrlich to convene an emergency meeting of city and county officials to update Maryland's response plans.
Ehrlich -- whom aides say came up with the idea of the in box himself -- has not been a reliable pen pal, to say the least. Aides to the governor say they are convinced that Duncan is merely trying to get publicity as he gears up to run for higher office.
Duncan, however, said the letters reflect real concerns that Ehrlich does not seem interested in hearing. Unlike previous governors, Ehrlich rarely meets with county executives to get their input on issues, Duncan said.
"This is how we communicate," he said. "We're trying to get the governor engaged in solving the problems of Maryland."
Slow Start for State Personnel Probe
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made a point last week of praising his appointments secretary, Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., whose work will come under scrutiny in coming weeks from a legislative committee reviewing the administration's firing practices.
Hogan, a real estate broker, accompanied Ehrlich to a conference of the Maryland Association of Realtors in Ocean City. Before giving a speech that included a call to roll back the state property tax, Ehrlich called Hogan to the front of the room.
"One of your own is my appointments secretary," Ehrlich told the crowd. "He has done a terrific job. . . . He deserves a round of applause."
Meanwhile, the work of the committee itself is drawing mixed reviews.
The 12-member panel, which is charged with ensuring that state workers have adequate job protections, spent five hours Wednesday haggling over such issues as whether witnesses could be contacted by e-mail and how much notification members must receive before the next meeting.
Even some Democrats on the panel acknowledged that they were off to a painfully slow start but largely blamed Republicans for trying to gum up the works.
Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said the past week had exposed the committee for what it is.
"It's a joke, and everyone now realizes it's a joke," Schurick said.
"It's ridiculous for him to shrug off the work of the committee," countered Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who says the administration acted unlawfully on several occasions. "It's not a joke. What we're talking about is the way we treat state workers."
Praise From Across the Aisle
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appeared last week at a major fundraiser for Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) and said he would work to keep the Republican field clear next year of any serious opposition for his ally from across the aisle.
Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, noted that the governor was supportive of Schaefer's 1998 election and his 2002 reelection.
Asked why Ehrlich would not prefer a Republican comptroller, Schurick said Schaefer shares the governor's "fiscally conservative tone."
"Republican and Democrat is secondary," Schurick said. "We want more people who think like us."