ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich Wednesday kicked off a series of day trips around Maryland to laud his legislative scores in a fractious General Assembly.
Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele boarded a bus in Seat Pleasant to check out the budding business community in western Prince George’s County.
The Republican governor also cut a state check worth $75,000 for restoring Seat Pleasant’s neighborhoods.
Ehrlich is scheduled to attend an Earth Day event Friday on the Annapolis waterfront and sign a homeland security agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard.
“He is at his best when he is when is with people, when he is face to face with them,” Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said.
Such events — along with TV and radio spots — have so far been an effective strategy for building public support, independent pollster Patrick Gonzales said.
“The one problem with it: Memories are short in this age we live in,” Gonzales said. “Ultimately what’s going on in the months leading up to November 2006 is going to have greatest impact.”
Ehrlich is likely to face a strong Democratic challenger for his 2006 re-election bid, with both Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan interested in replacing him.
Ehrlich is expected to spend time in the coming months pitching his agenda directly to the people, laying on the same regular-guy charm that helped him secure majority approval in polls this year.
But a poll conducted this month for The (Baltimore) Sun found Ehrlich’s approval has slipped since January, though more than half of likely voters polled still view him favorably. The same poll found O’Malley moving ahead of Ehrlich among likely voters.
“I think (Ehrlich’s) strategy is to push his agenda with public opinion,” said Gonzales, whose firm, Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies, found in January that a majority of Marylanders approve of the governor.
Securing public support is a crucial step in enacting policy, Gonzales said, but other steps cannot be ignored.
“To get the votes on the House and Senate floors, you’ve got to deal directly with the people down there,” he said.
As far as numbers go, the Republican governor got most of what he wanted out of the 90-day legislative session, seeing 13 of his 19 bills passed. He gave himself a “B” after the Legislature adjourned April 11. Among his initiatives that passed:
– Business tax credits for technology companies doing research and development, as well as for movie studios looking to film in Maryland.
– New restrictions on teenage drivers.
– Greater leeway for prosecutors to bring to court the testimony of intimidated witnesses to crimes.
– An initiative to end lead-paint poisoning among children by 2010.
But the Democratic-led General Assembly not only scuttled some of his most-prized initiatives — such as legal slot machines and a cap on certain damages in medical malpractice lawsuits — but also passed bills that seem to undercut his pro-business agenda or even reduce some of the power of his office.
The Legislature approved a $1 raise in the minimum wage and passed a bill requiring companies with 10,000 or more employees to provide greater health benefits — a bill that currently would affect only Wal-Mart.
To the frustration of GOP lawmakers, the Assembly also overrode the governor’s veto of a bill reducing Ehrlich’s role in appointing members to the state Board of Elections.
When the session ended, Democrats criticized the governor for spending too much time at public events and not enough time lobbying the Legislature to get his agenda passed.
Fawell called the criticism “nonsense.”
“His critics are simply uncomfortable with the fact that he relates with people in a personal way on these trips,” he said.
Democratic lawmakers outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1.
But taking the message directly to the people has its limits, and Ehrlich’s strategy could be for naught if mishandled, Gonzales said.
“If it’s just sort of ad hoc over the next 18 months, I don’t think it’ll have kind of impact he’ll need,” Gonzales said. “It would be more effective for him to get some of his legislative initiatives through and use that to tout his re-election.”