ANNAPOLIS – National Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge nudged Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as the Maryland governor described Chesapeake Bay hurricane damages to a media mob outside a flood-ravaged restaurant in Kent Narrows.
“The Department of Homeland Security has the Coast Guard,” Ridge said, cameras rolling. “So if you need my help, give me a call.”
That chummy exchange of one Republican leader to another is typical of pols anxious to show off their political connections, but political analysts are split on whether elected officials were using their recent exposure after Hurricane Isabel to boost their electoral futures.
Some saw campaign maneuvering among Ehrlich and his two likely Democratic challengers in 2006, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. Others said they just kept citizens informed.
“I think they all did a good job restraining themselves,” said Blair Lee, a political columnist for The Gazette newspapers and a regular commentator on WAMU radio.
Even if the politicians had tried to grandstand, Lee added, widespread power outages meant lots of people across the state couldn’t watch them on television anyway.
But Josh White, Maryland Democratic Party executive director, called Ehrlich’s tours with Ridge “political opportunism,” adding, “It’s a nice photo opportunity, but it doesn’t really get things done.”
Republicans saw it differently.
“It was two strong leaders assessing the damage firsthand,” said Maryland Republican Party Executive Director Eric Sutton. “It shows what strong leaders they are.”
Ehrlich, at Kent Narrows, just laughed when asked how many times he’s been on television and radio since forecasters said the storm would hit Maryland.
“I have no idea at all,” Ehrlich said.
A flip through the channels on Sept. 18, the day Isabel hit land, revealed roughly a dozen Ehrlich news conferences or phone interviews with radio and television stations between 9 a.m. and 1 a.m. the next day.
“He’s called into every local (station) that you can think of,” said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell on Sept. 19.
Ehrlich contacted roughly two dozen news outlets by phone on Sept. 18, Fawell estimated, not counting his appearances on camera and several repeat calls.
One of his major roles now, Ehrlich said, is to “provide comfort” for people who have suffered because of the storm. “We’ve tried to do what’s appropriate,” he said.
Before visiting Kent Narrows, Ehrlich and Ridge visited parts of Baltimore County, an area hard-hit by the hurricane as well as a battleground in the next gubernatorial election.
“You sort of have a mini-gubernatorial campaign going on,” said Barry Rascovar, a longtime Maryland political columnist now writing for The Gazette. “Everyone wants to express concern in the area that was hardest hit.”
In addition to Ehrlich’s visits, O’Malley sent dump trucks and dive teams from the city into the county and Duncan sent firefighters and swift-water recovery teams from Montgomery, said Renee Samuels, press secretary for Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.
Ehrlich and O’Malley were the political winners across the state, Rascovar said, since both “were always visible on television or could be heard on radio throughout the crisis,” Rascovar said.
Duncan had a disadvantage, Rascovar added, since Baltimore stations focused more on O’Malley and Smith, while Washington, D.C., stations turned their attention to Virginia, where hurricane damage was worse than in Montgomery County.
Duncan bristled at the suggestion that his absence from Baltimore airwaves during the storm hurt him politically.
“I’m not doing this for publicity,” Duncan said. “This is all about responding to the needs of the people.”
But the publicity, intentional or not, may have little effect on an election so far in the future.
“It might be a little different if the elections were in a month or so, (but) there’s a lot that can happen between now and 2006,” said Patrick E. Gonzales, president of an independent Maryland polling firm.
Gonzales, Lee and Rascovar agreed that Maryland politicians in general did a good job of avoiding grandstanding during the storm.
“It’s one thing if you show up, shake hands and then leave,” Rascovar said. Instead, politicians were “getting out to see the damage, to talk to people who had been impacted, and then to send in whatever immediate help they could.”
O’Malley agreed with Ehrlich and Duncan that their numerous press events during the storm were just part of being an executive during a natural disaster.
“I’m just doing my job,” O’Malley said. “The furthest thing from your mind when you’re waist-deep in floodwater is the political ramifications.”