The six Trailways motorcoaches draped in Ehrlich and Steele campaign banners rumbled down Interstate 95 just before dawn on Election Day.
On board, 300 mostly poor African Americans from Philadelphia ate doughnuts, sipped coffee and prepared to spend the day at the Maryland polls. After an early morning greeting from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s wife, Kendel, they would fan out in white vans across Prince George's County and inner-city Baltimore, armed with thousands of fliers that appeared to be designed to trick black Democrats into voting for the two Republican candidates.
The glossy fliers bore photos of black Democratic leaders on the front. Under the headline "Democratic Sample Ballot" were boxes checked in red for Ehrlich and Senate candidate Michael S. Steele, who were not identified as Republicans. Their names were followed by a long list of local Democratic candidates.
Nearly a week later, a fuller picture has emerged about how the plan to capture blacks' votes unfolded -- details that suggest the fliers, and the people paid to distribute them, were not part of a hurry-up effort but a calculated strategy.
Republican leaders have defended the Election Day episode as an accepted element of bare-knuckle politics. But for many voters, it shattered in one day the nice-guy images Ehrlich and Steele had cultivated for years.
The plan to pass out the fliers in the heavily black precincts of Baltimore and Prince George's began to form in late October, when Malik Aziz, founder of the Ex-Offenders Association of Pennsylvania, said he received a phone call.
Aziz would not say who made the call. He initially said it came from actor Charles S. Dutton, a Steele supporter, but Dutton later denied this and Aziz retracted it.
Aziz said he's had a long association with Dutton, a reformed ex-offender who rose from Baltimore's tough streets to became an acclaimed television, film and stage actor and director. "I haven't talked to Malik Aziz in months," Dutton said last week.
Aziz said the caller asked him and his wife, Antoinette, to help Ehrlich and Steele find volunteers to do "poll work."
Antoinette Aziz said she recruited 300 people, many of them homeless or ex-offenders. "They need the work," she said.
She said representatives from the Maryland campaigns went to north Philadelphia last Monday night to speak with the workers at a recreation center. Darryl Preston, 32, was there and said several well-dressed men and women asked the crowd to consider "coming down for the day to work on a political campaign."
Each worker would receive three meals and $100 and would be picked up on buses and returned to the pickup location the same day.
"They said we'd be passing out fliers and talking to some people," Preston said. The workers were not told, he said, that they would be helping Republicans.
Several of those who agreed to go said they considered it a chance to make some much-needed money.
"I did this because I need a winter coat," said Mike Ducannon, 25. "I didn't have anything else to do and nobody else was offering me $100."
The next morning, they gathered at North Broad and West Oxford streets in north Philadelphia. The buses pulled out at 5 a.m.
Recollections of 2002 This wasn't the first time Ehrlich and Steele had recruited poll workers this way. In 2002 -- when Ehrlich was campaigning to become Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation and Steele was his choice for lieutenant governor -- they bused in homeless people from the District to hand out literature at Prince George's precincts. Three people were charged under a state statute that prohibited campaign workers from hiring people to work on Election Day. The statute was overturned in 2003, however, after attorneys argued that the law was an infringement on free speech, and the charges were dropped.
It also was not the first time Ehrlich and Steele had used fliers that some considered deceptive. U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) still recalls arriving at a polling place in his Baltimore district during the 2002 governor's race and being handed a glossy flier.
"They handed me this big, beautiful piece of literature. It was better than any of the literature I have ever produced," Cummings recalled. "I said, 'Boy this is a wonderful photo.' There's my pastor, and [then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary] Mel Martinez, and [former Baltimore delegate] Tony Fulton and myself. Then I saw Ehrlich in the picture, and I saw the words and I said, 'Uh oh.' "
The words read, "Democrats for Ehrlich." Cummings was livid. He had been one of the most vocal supporters of Ehrlich's opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D). He immediately went on talk radio to denounce it, recorded a message to voters and went on television.
But the incident was largely ignored, washed away by the bigger news that day: Ehrlich had won the election.
As governor, Ehrlich worked hard to foster a good-guy image -- starring in tourism ads in which he turned up unexpectedly at peoples' homes, offering to clip hedges and cut grass so they could vacation -- that masked accusations of bare-knuckle campaigning.
Asked midway through his term to address critics' accusations of dirty tricks, he brushed off the question, saying, "That's just silly stuff."
As the 2006 election approached, Ehrlich was locked in the political fight of his life. Polls showed him trailing O'Malley statewide, but more important, they showed the Democrat cutting into Ehrlich's suburban Baltimore base. Ehrlich acknowledged in interviews that he needed to find numbers elsewhere and one key target was black voters.
Two weeks before Election Day, Cummings began to worry about what might be coming. He fired off a letter to Ehrlich, dated Oct. 26. It went right to the point.
"In anticipation of the November 7, 2006, General Election," he stated, "I am writing to insist that neither you nor any group associated with your campaign use my picture on mailers or Election Day ballots."
An Election Day OffensiveOn the eve of this month's election, the mailers began landing in Prince George's mailboxes. One was a glossy red, black and green flier -- the colors that represent African American power -- sporting pictures of County Executive Jack B. Johnson, his predecessor, Wayne K. Curry and past NAACP president and former U.S. Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume.
Above the pictures of the three Democrats the flier read, "Ehrlich-Steele Democrats," and underneath it announced: "These are OUR Choices."
None of the three candidates had endorsed the governor, and only Curry had declared his support for Steele.
There were other fliers, too. A similar "Democratic" guide with Ehrlich's and Steele's photo on the front appeared in Baltimore. Another distributed in Baltimore County identified the Republican candidate for county executive as a Democrat.
An Ehrlich aide who agreed to discuss the strategy on the condition of anonymity said the purpose of the fliers was to peel away one or two percentage points in jurisdictions where the governor would be running behind. No one inside the campaign expected a strong reaction.
But that's what they got.
"This was so offensive, to so many people, they're not about to let this go," said state Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman.
Wayne Clarke, a political consultant hired by Ehrlich and Steele to help draw blacks' votes, said he would neither confirm nor deny whether he was involved in the Election Day episode. He said Lierman and other Democrats were "trying to make something out of nothing."
Just as Cummings had done four years earlier, Johnson denounced the mailer at a news conference and in a recorded call to residents. "It's untruthful. I'm offended by it, and I'm angry about it," he said at an Election Day rally.
But this time he was not alone. Democrat Barry Cyrus of Fort Washington was so incensed by the flier that he traveled to six different polling places to urge voters to ignore them.
Even many of the Philadelphia workers began to question the plan, saying they had no idea they were going to be misleading people. Many were upset, and some even appeared at a Democratic news conference to vent.
On the afternoon of Election Day, the state Democratic Party's attorney, Bruce Marcus, contacted his Republican counterpart to complain. The two took the matter before Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Ron Silkworth in a tense conference call. Marcus argued that the fliers were fraudulent and should be pulled from circulation. Ehrlich attorney David Hamilton argued that it was too late to take action and noted the fundamental free-speech issues at stake, according to Marcus.
By the time they finished, it was nearing 6 p.m. "The judge said, 'I'm not going to do it. It's too late,' " Marcus said.
A few hours later, the buses headed back north, with a weary group of poll workers starting to doze as they left Baltimore.
Antoinette Aziz, who rode with them, said she did not take umbrage with the day's work.
"With elections, you see a lot of trickery. With elections, you see a lot of deceptions," she said. "My whole objective was to get that population of people working. . . . Nobody was injured. Everybody got paid. Everybody was safe, and everybody was happy at the end of the day."