The Blog

Voting Ehrlich and Often

Out of obscurity, Bob Ehrlich defied conventional wisdom and defeated a political dynasty.

10:57 AM, Nov 6, 2002 • By RACHEL DICARLO
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

REPRESENTATIVE BOB EHRLICH hesitated for months before announcing his candidacy for governor of Maryland. And with good reason. To run he would have to risk a safe seat in Congress to challenge Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1. His name recognition was low, and early polls showed Townsend with a whopping 26 point lead. Sympathetic local talk-radio hosts speculated that while Ehrlich would be the GOP's best candidate, he still had little chance of beating even a weak candidate like Townsend in this solidly Democratic state. He might make it interesting, they mused, but in the end, the result would be the same as it had been for decades, another Democrat in the Statehouse.

But as both candidates hit the campaign trail during the summer, Townsend's early lead slipped. Her campaign quickly turned negative, employing the same race-baiting tactics that led Gov. Parris Glendening to victory in 1998. During the one gubernatorial debate, Townsend invoked slavery and lynching to justify affirmative action, while her supporters passed around Oreo cookies to insult Ehrlich's African-American running mate Michael Steele. In a radio ad on black stations in Baltimore City, Townsend supporter Rep. Elijah Cummings warned listeners that Ehrlich "voted against real gun control, even voted against civil rights, voting rights and help for minority businesses."

Townsend also tried to paint Ehrlich as "too conservative for Maryland." In Montgomery County, in the wake of the sniper attacks, the Brady Campaign aired ads that tied Ehrlich to the assault weapons used in the Columbine attacks.

It didn't work. Last night Ehrlich stunned Townsend winning 52 percent of the vote and upsetting her Democratic machine. In doing so, he became the first Republican governor the state has elected since Spiro T. Agnew in 1966. Steele became the highest ranking African-American ever elected to office in Maryland.

By defeating a Kennedy in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, Ehrlich's win also confirmed his campaign's symbolism--that a local kid from a working class neighborhood can, despite the formidable odds, defeat a member of one of America's politically iconic families.

"Welcome to history," Ehrlich told throngs of cheering supporters last night. "Our time in the desert is over."

Running as a moderate, Ehrlich emphasized the theme of "It's Time for a Change," closely linking Townsend to her boss of eight years, Parris Glendening. Glendening (who is chairman of the Democratic Governors Association) is widely considered one of the nation's most unpopular governors and will leave as his legacy a $1.7 billion budget shortfall. He also angered Marylanders after he left his wife for a staffer 25 years younger whose salary had doubled shortly before the affair was made public.

Essentially running against a third Glendening term, Ehrlich shored up his base with votes from thousands of unhappy Democrats and independent voters and received endorsements from organizations like the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police who normally support Democrats almost as a rule.

"The first person Bob Ehrlich should send a thank-you note to is Parris Glendening," political commentator Richard Vatz told Baltimore's WBAL radio this morning.

With the election over, Ehrlich will have to put together a team to start dealing with some of Maryland's pressing problems: the budget deficit, traffic jams, crime, and the dismal performance of the state's public schools. And he will have to work out a strategy for dealing with a Democrat-dominated legislature almost sure to be hostile to some of his initiatives. But for now he can savor the moment when the kid from working-class Arbutus turned back a member of America's royal family.

Rachel DiCarlo is a staff assistant at The Weekly Standard.