Virginia's Mark R. Warner (D) and Maryland's Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) hit it off instantly when they met late last year in, of all places, Texas. Warner was in Austin leading a seminar for incoming governors who would soon confront the kind of massive budget deficits that he had been grappling with for months.
"He's living it, so I listened intently," Ehrlich, then the governor-elect, said shortly after the tutorial. "We legitimately like each other."
The Washington area's two baby boomer governors had better cling to that budding friendship, given the way things are going for them at their historic state Capitols in Richmond and Annapolis.
Ehrlich, 45, is just coming off an awful debut as the Free State's first Republican governor in 34 years, having lost the centerpiece of his legislative agenda, a bill to help close a $1.3 billion budget deficit by bringing 11,500 slot machines to four Maryland racetracks. Meanwhile, Warner, 48, is limping through the start of his second year after staking his prestige on passage last fall of two regional tax referendums, both of which were crushed by voters.
So what happened to the Washington region's two rising political stars, who entered office with the kind of boyish bounce they exhibit in the pickup basketball games that both still enjoy? Why is it that after running expert campaigns and spending record sums to win their respective governorships (Warner $20 million, Ehrlich $10.4 million), both are being ridiculed by some as rank amateurs at the game of politics, feckless yuppies who might not be quite ready for the serious business of governing?
One obvious answer is that it's not easy being governor when the legislative branch is an opposition-party monolith. In the increasingly Republican Old Dominion, the state Senate is run by moderate GOPers who like Warner's pro-business leanings, but the House of Delegates majority is a cauldron of rural libertarians who oppose nearly all things Democratic.
Ehrlich has it even worse. Solidly Democratic Maryland has produced a General Assembly whose institutional inclination -- raise taxes to maintain a full menu of services -- is wholly at odds with Ehrlich's vision of a leaner and less generous state government. Lawmakers passed $135 million in new taxes before adjourning last week, and Ehrlich is promising a veto.
Divided government only exacerbates a legislature's natural tendency to want to teach an incoming governor an object lesson or two about which branch holds the real power whenever the General Assembly comes to town for its annual session. During last year's session, Warner enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts -- even managing to persuade grudging lawmakers to authorize the Northern Virginia-Hampton Roads transportation tax referendum bill. This year, however, the opposition killed his proposals for a tougher seat belt law and two-term governorships. Why? Mostly, because it could.
Similarly, when Ehrlich's nomination of Lynn Y. Buhl to be his environmental secretary died in a toxic cloud of partisan acrimony, it was as much the state Senate reminding the rookie executive of its prerogatives as it was any questioning of Buhl's credentials.
Things get even dicier when legislative leaders have something to prove to their own power bases. By coincidence, the House of Delegates in each state welcomed a brand-new speaker this year, and while those figures were popular in their own right, they were following accomplished predecessors and sought to make their own marks.
In Richmond, William J. Howell (R-Stafford) inherited the House speakership from S. Vance Wilkins Jr., a rural Republican and staunch conservative who was nonetheless Warner's most important legislative ally. After Wilkins was forced out last summer in a sexual harassment scandal, Howell held Warner at arm's length and then some, lest he be perceived as too cozy with the Democrat.
In Annapolis, Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), an Ehrlich pal since the governor's days in the legislature, made himself the main impediment to passage of the slots bill. After succeeding a speaker from Western Maryland who had failed to win reelection, Busch blossomed overnight into a powerhouse every bit as formidable as longtime Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a lawmaker since 1975.
While the legislative odds may be stacked against them, the two governors are also creating their own problems, usually by committing rookie errors but sometimes by mistaking their personal popularity with voters as a broad mandate for their own agenda.
Ehrlich's handling of the slots bill was a textbook case of how not to get something passed. First, he was late presenting it to lawmakers, then he had to rewrite it under pressure from track owners. At one point, Ehrlich went so far as to accuse Busch of engaging in racial politics on the issue; another time, the administration released a version of the bill at a late-night news conference, fuzzing up the numbers on how slots proceeds would be distributed.
Warner has also botched his share of initiatives, sometimes overreaching, other times appearing blind to the ins and outs of the legislative process. Last year, he switched gears mid-session and tried in vain to couple the transportation tax referendum to a similar vote on schools funding. Then Warner sprang a trash tax proposal on lawmakers when they reconvened for their one-day veto session in April; the governor's Senate allies promptly consigned that to the legislative dustbin.
As he nears the midpoint of his term, Warner is already being criticized (openly by Republicans, much more quietly by fellow Democrats) for waffling on the landmark tax restructuring he promised as a candidate in 2001.
In both states, critics of the governors like to blame the relatively inexperienced staffs that surround the executives for each administration's missteps. There is some merit to that criticism; in each Capitol, the gubernatorial lobbying teams can be cocky or inattentive -- or both -- but it's really the executive who sets the tone.
And that's precisely where Warner and Ehrlich can learn from each other.
Warner could use some of Ehrlich's touch as an ex-legislator, communicating with lawmakers on a level that seems natural to the Marylander but alien to the multi-millionaire Virginian. Having lawmakers over for pizza and chicken wings can only go so far in solving Ehrlich's problems, but Warner's idea of bonding is breakfast at the Executive Mansion, where nobody unwinds.
Ehrlich, for his part, could benefit from some of Warner's discipline. The Republican needs to lose some of his locker-room nonchalance and project more of the air of a governor, as Warner has learned to do.
Often, these two Ivy Leaguers -- Ehrlich, Princeton, class of 1979, and Warner, Harvard Law School, class of 1980 -- appear way too self-absorbed, as if it were somehow their turn to be governor, by golly. Ehrlich has a conversational quirk where he refers to himself in the third person, and Warner changes his hair color all the time; both traits seem out of touch with their solidly middle-class roots, and only serve to antagonize the colossal egos across the street at the Statehouse.
Time -- and dealing with historically large budget deficits -- have a way of maturing governors real fast. Warner and Ehrlich will no doubt improve as their terms unfold. But true success will require focus and passion; Ehrlich needs the former, Warner the latter.