ANNAPOLIS – Robert Ehrlich, Maryland’s first Republican governor in nearly 40 years, likes to point out that he’s the new kid on a block Democrats are used to ruling.
Democrats are just as ready to accuse Ehrlich of shutting them out.
The “assassin politics” Ehrlich lamented in his State of the State address this year might be as new to Annapolis as his administration is, political observers and former participants say. But the friction between the governor and the General Assembly goes beyond party affiliation and has its roots in Maryland’s constitutional underpinnings.
“Here’s a Republican, the first time one’s been elected governor in a long time,” said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat who was governor from 1987 to 1995. “So the Democrats aren’t particularly for that.”
Blair Lee IV, a Silver Spring developer and political commentator, is less genteel.
“Almost everything the Legislature does is weighed on the scale of, ‘How can we defeat Ehrlich in 2006?'” said Lee, whose father was governor in the 1970s. “That’s the prism that everything goes through.”
The ideological chasm embodied at the national level in the 2004 presidential election can also be seen within the state, said Larry Levitan, a lobbyist and former senator. He said there are fewer moderates in the state Legislature now than in the 24 years he spent in the Assembly.
“The camaraderie has definitely changed,” he said.
James Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, agreed.
“It’s all partisanship,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.”
But Catherine Riley, who for four years served as legislative liaison to Ehrlich’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening, said the partisan aspect is overplayed.
Like Ehrlich, Glendening clashed with the Legislature over state appointments.
“I don’t think (lawmakers) have been any more unkind to Ehrlich than they were to Glendening. They treated Glendening as outsider,” said Riley, a lecturer on public policy at the University of Maryland. Riley was chairwoman of the Public Service Commission until Ehrlich decided not to reappoint her in 2003.
She said she can trace the outsider treatment back to Schaefer, who came to Annapolis after serving as mayor of Baltimore for 15 years.
“Schaefer attempted to name a treasurer, and, before he was even sworn in, the (House) speaker and the (Senate) president tried to put him in his place,” she said.
The friction also stems from the governor’s budget-making powers.
“Maryland has singularly the most powerful chief executive model in the nation,” said Casper Taylor Jr., who was Michael Busch’s predecessor as House speaker. “And that defines the relationship of the governor with the Legislature.”
Whether they like it or not, lawmakers must work from the budget proposal the governor gives them for the upcoming fiscal year. They may cut expenditures, but may not add to the government’s day-to-day expenses or shift money around. This gives the governor great leverage in budget negotiations.
This session, Ehrlich did not show his hand until he had to, irritating lawmakers by keeping details of his budget secret until its constitutional deadline for submission.
Democrats have also strongly criticized Ehrlich’s hiring and firing of state employees. The outrage boiled over this month when a state bureaucrat and former aide to Ehrlich admitted to spreading rumors that Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 2006, had cheated on his wife. Ehrlich said he would investigate the incident and maintained he had nothing to do with the shenanigans.
This week, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, told the Gazette newspaper he would seek an independent inquiry into Ehrlich’s employment practices after the session.
The Ehrlich administration fired back at the criticism earlier this month when Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., in a normally staid presentation to the Senate of the governor’s state-job nominees, said some Democrats were trying to erase the governor’s appointment powers.
Hogan’s statement may have held a grain of truth: Marked for floor debate that week was a bill to abolish the state Board of Elections. It would also have the elections administrator serve at the pleasure of a new panel of top state officials, including the treasurer, the comptroller and the attorney general.
The membership of that new commission would be composed almost entirely of Democrats.
Republicans said they’d been blindsided.
From 1969 to 1999, both the state elections board and the state elections administrator were appointed by the governor. That changed when the Democratic-controlled Legislature adopted recommendations by a state task force, which said the election laws were antiquated.
While elections board memberships continued to be filled by the governor, the elections administrator became an appointee of the board members.
The new bill, which Democrats say would “depoliticize” the administrator, would further insulate the office from the governor’s influence. Last year, Ehrlich tried to fire the current officer, Linda Lamone, a Democrat.
“Under the old rules he would have kicked Lamone out and put his own flunky in,” Lee said. “Now they’re trying to guarantee a Democrat holds that office. It’s pure partisan politics — and that’s coming from a Democrat.”