WASHINGTON – A year ago, Robert Ehrlich Jr. was sitting on the other side of the table, a member of Congress from Maryland discussing federal-state issues with the governor.
On Thursday, Ehrlich walked into the room as the new governor who had come to meet with his former colleagues in the Maryland congressional delegation and hear their concerns.
“I had a great eight years here and I had no trouble finding my way back,” Ehrlich said, kicking off a collegial meeting between himself, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, eight of his Cabinet secretaries and all 10 members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Ehrlich said the main themes for the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, were transportation, education and homeland security, with homeland security being the top priority.
“We live in a brave new world, the post-9-11 world,” Ehrlich said. “That means we have to prioritize that, and security is important now.”
State Police Superintendent Edward Norris asked the delegation for help establishing a joint intelligence center that would bring federal, state and local authorities together in the fight against domestic terrorism.
“Seven of the (9-11) hijackers were in Maryland,” Norris said. “They (potential terrorists) are driving on our highways, going to video stores, using credit cards. . . . This center would really assist in our effort.”
But while state officials were asking for federal help, members of the federal delegation turned around and pressed Ehrlich — the first Republican governor in Maryland in almost four decades — for help winning federal dollars from the Republican White House.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, urged Ehrlich to use his ties to President Bush to get more money for Maryland, while Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D- Kensington, said anything the governor could do to pressure the White House for education funding would help.
Others brought their own agendas to the meeting. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R- Kennedyville, for example, asked about projects in agriculture, the biggest industry in his district.
Everybody got a turn to speak, both delegation members and Cabinet members, who were grilled on their plans for implementing welfare reform and the details of the president’s No Child Left Behind Act.
At the end of the meeting, Ehrlich joked that he was relieved no one asked him about slot machines — prompting Rep. Al Wynn, D-Mitchellville, to shoot up his hand as if to ask the slots question.
“I remember sitting through meetings with Al Wynn, trading one-liners,” Ehrlich said.
“Is that what you did?” asked Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes.
“Not while you were talking,” the governor joked.
Ehrlich said his relationship with the congressional delegation helped the discussion.
“Just a few months ago, I was on the receiving side of all this. Now I’m on the (giving) side,” he said. “It’s a good thing.”