Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stormed through Charles County on Tuesday to pass out public money to restore a historic schoolhouse in Bel Alton and to collect private money in Port Tobacco to boost his reelection bid.
In between, the Republican governor dispensed career and political advice to ninth-graders at the county's new high school and tried to mobilize small-businessmen to challenge legislators who do not share their agenda in the Democrat-controlled State House.
"When I sit down with the leadership, your agendas are completely ignored. They are not relevant," Ehrlich said, poised on the edge of a desk at the Wills Group oil company in La Plata.
"I love the fight. That's why I got elected," he said. "But I need more troops -- troops on the ground, people's votes on the board."
Instead of engaging in academic policy discussions, Ehrlich urged the three dozen business leaders to express themselves at the ballot box and with their checkbooks just as groups such as labor unions have traditionally done.
The governor stressed that his visit was not about supporting or opposing individual legislators. But the group organizing the event -- the National Federation of Independent Business -- had scorecards that highlighted local lawmakers' votes on two key measures: a bill to increase the minimum wage by $1 and another that would have required Wal-Mart to pay more for employee health benefits. Ehrlich vetoed both measures, and Democratic legislators are preparing to try to override his action when they return to Annapolis in January.
"We don't want the state of Maryland telling us what to pay our folks or what benefits to provide," said Lock Wills, chief executive of the Wills Group, which owns Southern Maryland Oil.
The governor's day in Charles County started with a government class at North Point High School, where he seemed to relish the role of teacher. Leaning against a dry erase board in an olive green suit, Ehrlich quizzed local legislators in the room on their political philosophy, cautioned students to avoid being labeled on hot-button issues such as abortion and offered some career counseling.
When many of the students raised their hands to signify their dreams of becoming professional athletes, the former college football player told them to always have a Plan B. In Ehrlich's case, governor, he joked.
"Athletics was my ticket to just about everything in life. And then when I realized I wasn't going to play in the NFL," he said, "I realized that maybe there needed to be a back-up plan."
Later in the afternoon, Ehrlich quickly shifted back to the business of governing and politics. He handed out two oversized checks -- one for $190,400 to help convert the old Bel Alton school into a community resource center and the other for $205,000 to renovate the Jude House, which offers drug addiction treatment. The Bel Alton school was the county's last all-black high school.
Ehrlich ended the evening at a $1,000-a-couple fundraiser at the home of local real estate executive Carl Baldus, where he mingled with more than 100 guests over Southern Maryland ham biscuits and mini-crab quiches.
All three Southern Maryland counties helped Ehrlich become the first Republican governor in a generation in 2002. But Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Charles, 49 percent to 35 percent in voter registration.
Del. W. Daniel Mayer (R-Charles) warned the crowd that the growth in the northern part of Charles since the last election would make it more challenging in 2006.
"Most of them are liberal Democrats that have moved here from other counties," he said.
But Ehrlich sounded a confident note as he stood before the fireplace next to Baldus.
"Your money is being put to good use," he said. "We think we're going to get rehired."
John Pearl Yates, treasurer of the Bel Alton High School Alumni Association, holds a check for $190,400 to support the conversion to a community center.