ANNAPOLIS – As former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich makes his bid to reclaim the state’s highest office, he’ll need to appeal to conservative Democrats and independents, as well as Republicans, to win in heavily Democratic Maryland.
This means maintaining the support of Maryland’s conservative tea party groups without alienating moderate voters. But that task could be made more difficult by the diversity of voices within the tea party movement, which includes both experienced conservative activists and novice political protesters, some of whom have a tendency toward the kind of fiery rhetoric that will not play well in moderate parts of the state.
The differing styles were on display at a recent protest in Annapolis, as several tea party groups staged a mock trial to coincide with the closing night of the General Assembly. The protestors indicted the legislature for what they considered to be the body’s fiscally irresponsible policies.
Before the trial began, Dave Schwartz, a former Ehrlich campaign worker and director of the Maryland chapter of the conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity, which has organized several tea party events, took the microphone and urged the crowd of about 200 people to stay focused on the issues and avoid personal attacks and conspiracy theories about issues like the president’s birthplace.
“Don’t lose sight of our priorities,” Schwartz said. “Birthers, truthers, President Obama was born in this country and he got elected by a majority of people. We need to fight him on the issues, not on personality.”
“If this movement ends up being an anti-Obama, anti-(Gov. Martin) O’Malley movement, it will die quickly,” Schwartz said, and was greeted with applause and cheers.
But the trial itself struck a different tone.
“We’re going to indict the Teflon governor,” said Tony Passaro of the Bel Air Tea Party Patriots, who acted as bailiff and wore a black robe and white powdered wig.
“Then we’ll hang the S.O.B.,” Passaro told the crowd.
His proclamation was greeted with applause and laughter, but also with a few shaking heads. “No violence,” said one disappointed-sounding man.
Ehrlich formally announced his campaign earlier in April, after months of speculation, setting up a rematch with O’Malley, the Democrat who ousted him in 2006.
O’Malley must strike a similar balance with Democratic voters in the state, said Todd Eberly, who teaches political science at St. Mary’s College. If the current governor moves too far to the left, Ehrlich could more easily appeal to moderates.
Ehrlich is a point of cohesion among the Maryland tea parties. Many say he embodies the spirit of fiscal conservatism that flows through the movement. At the Annapolis event a large billboard reading “Bring Ehrlich Back” was attached to the back of a truck in the parking lot.
But the movement’s lack of a clear leader or figurehead could become a hindrance over the next year, said Eberly. “There’s really not a central organization, it’s still a loose confederation,” Eberly said.
“I think that they’re going to go through growing pains … especially as they try to access what happens in (the 2010 elections) and what that can tell them moving forward for 2012,” Eberly said.
There’s already potential for division between experienced lawmakers and the newcomers who have grown impatient with them.
One lesser-known candidate, Brian Murphy, who will challenge Ehrlich in the Republican primary, wrote on his website that Marylanders must “capitalize on the national trend away from career politicians and towards fiscal responsibility.”
But Ehrlich’s political experience gives him strength because he’s proven he can win in heavily Democratic Maryland, said Eberly.
“Ehrlich’s about as conservative as you get for a statewide candidate for governor (in Maryland),” Eberly said. “He’s not a social conservative; he’s more of a libertarian, more of an economic conservative.”
Many tea partiers seem content with the former governor’s record, regardless of his position on social issues.
“We support (Ehrlich) … because of the budget deficits and overspending with O’Malley,” said JP Weber of the Annapolis Tea Party, who stressed that his organization includes Democrats, libertarians and independents as well as Republicans, and will be less focused on promoting candidates than on educating voters about issues.
“I don’t feel like he’s a strong social conservative in terms of traditional marriage, marriage between a man and a woman, and abortion rights,” said Sam Hale of the Maryland Society of Patriots. “But he definitely ran the budget better than O’Malley.”
Running as an economic conservative could be dangerous for Ehrlich, Eberly said. “He’s going to be running up against the reality that the general fund budget has shrunk under O’Malley.”
The O’Malley campaign is happy to point out the difference in spending between the two governors. Campaign Manager Tom Russell said that general fund spending went up about a third under Ehrlich, but saw a single-digit decrease under O’Malley.
“It’s not even a comparison,” Russell said. He went on to say that people interested in a smaller, more efficient government should consider Maryland’s achievements, such as top-ranked public schools and an in-state tuition freeze for higher education during O’Malley’s tenure.
Passaro lays the blame for the state’s economic troubles on the legislature.
“Ehrlich is a great governor, he’s got the right stuff,” said Passaro. “The problem with Ehrlich is not Ehrlich, the problem is that the House (of Delegates) is all liberal.”
“Even though we have a powerful governor, the State House won’t let him go to the bathroom,” Passaro said.
That political contrast with the General Assembly may well work to Ehrlich’s advantage, said Eberly.
“I would guess that the argument he has to make is that … what Maryland needs is a veto pen in the governor’s mansion to try to prevent our structural deficit problem from getting worse,” Eberly said.
Overall, the recent Annapolis protest was a much more civil affair than some of the tea party events that have made news across the country, but the diversity among the protestors was clear: young but experienced operatives like Schwartz stood alongside an older generation of relative newcomers like Passaro. Those urging restraint and focus had to contend with those who were caustic and angry.
But despite his inflammatory rhetoric in Annapolis, Passaro, a retired corporate efficiency expert, has devoted his attention to making practical changes in local policy.
He became active in the movement in early 2009, after receiving an assessment on his Bel Air home that he thought was out of whack.
Instead of appealing, Passaro turned his energy toward the tax protests he’d been reading about on the internet and enlisted to help coordinate a protest in Bel Air that April 15.
Since then, Passaro has become a well-known presence in the Maryland tea parties, speaking at protests and posting columns and open letters on conservative websites. His writing addresses many topics, from illegal immigrants in Harford County to what he considers the true, socialist motives behind Obama’s healthcare reform plan.
In conversation, Passaro speaks frankly about his views, and seems to enjoy peppering his comments with the occasional abrasive jab – like the one about hanging the governor.
“Tony’s very passionate about what he feels,” said Joan Ryder, a real estate agent and coordinator for Americans For Prosperity in Harford County. “You can’t change his mind when he’s set for something.”