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Rep. Bob Ehrlich: Taking on the Kennedy legend

March 28, 2002

Like Washington County's Tim Mayberry, who took on the legendary Louis Goldstein in the Maryland Comptroller's race, Rep. Robert Ehrlich knows that a gubernatorial campaign against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will be a losing effort if he can't keep it focused on the issues.

"If this campaign is all about Robert Kennedy and Camelot, we're done," Ehrlich said.

But in a hour-long interview this week at The Herald-Mail offices, Ehrlich said he has no intention of letting the outcome of this campaign turn on anything but issues, specifically what he sees as the sorry state of Maryland's finances.

A Congressman since 1995 and a veteran of the Maryland General Assembly, Ehrlich had little but scorn for the current administration's handling of the budget.

Ehrlich said that just as Gov. Parris Glendening left a financial mess for his successor to clean up in Prince George's County, the next governor will have some financial repair work to do.

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Ehrlich said he would begin by cutting staff at the highest levels, including that of the governor and lieutenant governor. Ehrlich said that Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg, one of the state's most successful lieutenant governors (in his first term, anyway) had only two staffers. Now there are more than 10, Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich charged that the Glendening-Townsend administration is not making mandatory pension contributions for state employees and "slashing program after program for people who need government."

Western Maryland a good fit for his campaign, because "the people here are fairly conservative and expect the state to live within its means, and it has not done so. It will take a number of years to remedy this situation because they've built a structural deficit into the system."

One way he would relieve the financial pressure - and break with the current administration - would be to legalize slot machines at the state's horse tracks and devote the money to public education, for kindergarten through 12th grade.

In answer to questions, he said he wouldn't favor slots at off-track betting parlors, in part because of the damage they might do to Washington County's tip-jar gambling, which funds many charitable causes.

"I've already heard from Sen. (Don) Munson on that one," Ehrlich said.

On one key local issue - the location of a new University Systems of Maryland campus - Ehrlich said he would have listened to local officials instead of making a decision they didn't agree with.

After the campus had been proposed for a site along Interstate 70 offered for free by Allegheny Power, a group of current and former city officials lobbied the governor to put it in downtown Hagerstown. Glendening did so, but the struggle delayed the start of construction - and the money still needs to survive the current General Assembly's efforts to cut costs.

In recent weeks, Kenndey-Townsend has begun to differentiate herself from Glendening, saying she would consider a death-penalty moratorium and the construction of the metro-area Inter-County Connector (ICC) road, both of which Glendening has opposed.

Ehrlich dismissed her shift on ICC as electioneering, saying "they have no credibility on this issue. If you look at her words, there are conditions, and we're not talking about things like environmental impact, which I support. I'm asking the people of Montgomery County to look not at words, but at the deeds."

On the death-penalty issue, Ehrlich said the lieutenant governor is responding to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who's making noises about challenging Kennedy-Townsend.

"I do not support the moratorium," he said.

On other issues, Ehrlich took the following positions:

- He lists himself as "pro-choice" on abortion, although he supports the ban on partial-birth abortion and parental-notification laws.

- He would have to "take a look at the economics" of a threatened $2 million-a-year commuter plane subsidy for Cumberland and Hagerstown.

- He would bring the so-called "Exile" program to target those felons who use a gun in the commission of a crime and would also support additional drug-treatment programs.

- Of the League of Conservation Voters' criticism of his vote not to require a reduced percentage of arsenic in water, Ehrlich said that the group, which had been satisfied with the previous standard all through the Clinton years, was now calling for something that would be technologically impossible and enormously expensive.

"We are not in the business of indulging these rather narrow ideological groups. Crafting policy that makes sense requires the use of cost-benefit analysis," he said.

A quick Internet search shows there are many groups ready to criticize Ehrlich for the stands he's taken in Congress, something he says doesn't bother him.

If you vote on an issue, somebody won't like it, he said. But he says he doesn't feel his opponent should get a free ride, just because she hasn't had to make the hard decisions.

Ehrlich says he knows what he's in for, but I've been in meetings where Kennedy-Townsend was present and watched her get the Prince Diana treatment from one and all. Ehrlich's job is to challenge her in a way that reveals whether or not there's a leader behind the Kennedy legend.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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