ANNAPOLIS – A series of political blunders by Gov. Robert Ehrlich have some state lawmakers wondering whether he is the chief executive Marylanders elected in November or the legislator they had for 16 years prior.
One of his 18 Cabinet appointments was shot down by a Senate committee Monday, his revised slots proposal opened a $230 million budget gap, and, in his battle to win slots, he may have alienated a close friend from his first years in office.
“He’s using up a lot of chips,” said Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, who’s leading a drive to reject one of Ehrlich’s top appointments. “He’s going about this all wrong.”
Some lawmakers chalk the blundering up to Ehrlich’s inexperience, but other political observers say this is the reality of a bipartisan government — something Maryland hasn’t seen in 34 years.
“Deadlock and tension is something we’re going to have to get used to,” said University of Maryland professor James Gimpel.
At the top of the governor’s agenda is a revamped proposal to install 11,500 slot machines at four race tracks across the state.
Although a new version won him support from the race-track owners, it may have cost him some key votes in the Legislature. Ehrlich snagged his bill to legalize slot machines on some jagged politics Wednesday.
The Ehrlich administration deliberately left out some specifics of the bill at a last-minute news conference to announce it, leaving even supportive lawmakers stunned when they learned the horse industry’s take had doubled.
Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s, complained he felt used after Budget Secretary James C. “Chip” DiPaula dragged him in front of the press to answer questions.
“Wow! We got (screwed),” said Currie, whose committee must pass the governor’s slots proposal before it goes to a vote in the Senate.
Many called the news conference a sloppy delivery of such a key policy.
“I don’t know what they (governor’s staff) are doing,” Miller said. “They are like a band of wandering gypsies who don’t know where they are or where they are going.”
On top of that, the governor may be forced to go back on a promise to veto all new tax bills. His new slots proposal is $230 million shy of needed funds.
“There are many ways to skin a cat,” said former House Speaker Casper Taylor, now a consultant to the Ehrlich administration. “If the leaders on both sides continue to dialog with one another than they’ll get this done.”
That dialog hit the rocks last week in back-to-back testimony from the governor and his budget team before House and Senate committees.
Ehrlich accused House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, of “playing the race card” in his opposition to slot machine approval.
It was “extremely hurtful to be accused of using race on an issue such as this,” said Busch, who’s been friends with Ehrlich since they both arrived in Annapolis in 1987.
Busch galvanized anti-slots legislators in the House and said the governor pulled the wrong card by accusing him of preying on race.
Busch questioned whether the new governor is still acting as a legislator or an executive.
Ehrlich “comes from a different background and doesn’t have a core of administrators,” Busch said. “They didn’t spend time getting the votes from the council . . . As the governor, what he’s slowly learning is there’s going to be a trial-and-error period.”
Lobbyist Bill Pitcher has a different view: Ehrlich is doing an exceptional job in working with both parties, with some occasional slips. “He’s met the Legislature more than halfway and he’s appointed a lot Democratic legislators” to his administration, Pitcher said.
Some examples include his appointment of popular Democrat and former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry to a spot on his transition team; bringing in former Democratic lawmaker Keith Montague to head the beleaguered Department of Juvenile Services and hiring former House Democrat Ken Masters as a lobbyist.
“It’s not as if he came in with very much political capital – he’s a Republican,” Gimpel said. “I think he’s trying to learn how to work with both parties.”
One key Cabinet nominee is causing a lot of trouble for Ehrlich.
Lynn Buhl, appointed to head the Maryland Department of the Environment, was shot down in a Senate committee Monday, and Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, who led the battle against Buhl, said he has the votes to deny her appointment. No Cabinet appointment has ever been rejected.
Maryland environmentalists lobbied hard against Buhl, calling her anti- environment for her record as a car company lawyer. Ehrlich turned up his lobbying efforts this week, but Senate Democrats said Buhl doesn’t have a chance, particularly since Ehrlich blundered by withholding support for a popular environmental proposal.
“Their attitude is all wrong and they go and prove it by pulling their support on a bill,” Frosh said. “It’s a dumb thing to do.”
Ehrlich’s team and some former state leaders contend the Senate is taking the wrong stand, however, by not supporting Ehrlich’s appointment.
“A governor should be given his preference in regards to Cabinet secretaries,” Ehrlich said, pointing to the traditional courtesy extended to the governor by the Senate. “The Cabinet is generally reflective of the governor’s philosophies. I thought this was obvious.”
Ehrlich threatened to install the deputy secretary in Buhl’s place and has floated some alternative candidates. He also delayed the Senate vote until Tuesday.
“We are going to win at any length,” said Paul Schurick, Ehrlich’s communications director. “This is simple character assassination.”
Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has openly supported the new governor since he was elected in November, said the governor deserves to have the people he chooses appointed. Digging in on the Buhl nomination is a wise move, he said.
“Who runs what?” Schaefer asked. “The governor or the Legislature?”
Buhl’s fight is just another sign of partisan battles to come, however, Gimpel said.
“I don’t know what people expect,” Gimpel said. “If they expect smooth sailing they’re dreaming.”
As the deadline to pass the state budget looms only a month away and as tensions rise on the first and second floors of the State House, Ehrlich’s fabled honeymoon with the Democrats appears to be at an end. “You have a split in government, you have clashing political philosophies,” Ehrlich said. “Leaders lead, we’ll do what needs to get done.” – 30 – CNS-3-7-03