ST. MARY’S CITY – Concluding his top five points about politics, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich told students at St. Mary’s College Friday to “be blunt” and direct in answering questions and dismissed “dime a dozen” politicians who try to placate everyone.
But about an hour later, faced with tough questions from a dogged 19-year-old student reporter, Ehrlich skirted questions on domestic partner benefits for faculty and staff members (“I’m not going to speculate, but clearly you know my position…I would hate to set something now.”), his changing position on hate crime statutes (“I’m not buying your rationale, because I haven’t read the bills. So I’m not buying your premise.”), and the controversial lyrics of the Maryland state song (“I think there are more pressing problems and I’ve discussed them over the course of this interview.”)
Ehrlich spoke in a small classroom to about 35 St. Mary’s students, most of them members of assistant political science professor Zach Messitte’s Maryland Politics class. Messitte said he has invited candidates from all of the major statewide and local races to visit his class and demystify the political process for his undergraduate students.
“The idea was to try to get them so familiar with these candidates that you break down not just the barrier between adult and young person… but also between citizen and candidate, so that they view these people as just people,” he said. “The student’s weren’t afraid… It was a big success for the students of the college, who acquitted themselves very well in front of the governor.”
Ehrlich led off his appearance by listing five key points about success in politics – making your case and having confidence in it, taking advantage of advantages, being optimistic, making a good appearance and being blunt with your viewpoints.
“Blunt… usually gets you a lot of credit in life, and it rarely causes you long-term harm,” he said. “If you try to cut your positions every which way to placate every group out there, you’re just another politician. And politicians are a dime a dozen.”
Ehrlich also discussed the role of the media in communicating opinions and ideas. He expressed a clear preference for radio and television coverage as a more “direct” way of communicating with the public than through the intermediary levels of newspaper reporters and editors.
“Not all [print] reporters have a bias… but we have found that many at The [Baltimore] Sun and The [Washington] Post do,” added Gregory Massoni, the governor’s deputy director of communications.
The governor’s political philosophies – and his distaste for print media – were promptly put to the test by Jeremy Pevner, a junior political science major and managing editor for The Point News, the college’s bi-weekly student newspaper.
In a one-on-one interview after the class that other reporters were invited to audit, Pevner pressed Ehrlich about a living wage for campus workers, his Corsica River initiative and any advice that he would give to his opponent in the governor’s race, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.
“There are things that have been answered tons of times to every reporter from The Washington Post to WJZ. I was looking for questions that haven’t been answered,” he said.
And Pevner’s opinion on the governor’s answers?
“He moved around,” the student editor said. “There were a few times that I managed to back him into a corner. He wasn’t really as blunt as he could have been, but there’s also the point that there are sometimes that you can’t be blunt. He said that in class, but…”
Messitte said he appreciated the moxie of his students, who asked pointed and topical questions about his choice of Kristen Cox as lieutenant governor, his views on capital punishment and his ideas for fixing the Baltimore City public school system, a focal point of the gubernatorial campaign.
“I was impressed today, particularly by Jeremy,” he said. “That’s a really daunting task…The Sun’s there, The Post’s there, the president of the college… the governor of the state, his press secretary is sitting at the table, and man, he didn’t flinch!”
Pevner, a Pasadena native, said his questions came from on-campus issues and from watching the governor’s race unfold in the media. The query on the state song, Maryland, My Maryland, though, was the product of a class on Civil War history.
“The entire song is based on the massacre in Baltimore, and yet this is our state song,” he said. “I’ve never actually been asked that question,” Ehrlich said during his interview with Pevner. “But you know what? It’s a sign of a good liberal arts education that you even asked that question.”