October 13, 2010

Why do these guys hate each other so much?

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The personal animosity between Bob Ehrlich and Martin O’Malley was visibly displayed in Monday’s televised debate. We may or may not see more of it in today’s encounter at the Washington Post to be webcast and broadcast on WAMU-FM, WUSA TV and Maryland Public Television.

In that light, a long essay written by Len Lazarick in August for the October issue of What’s Up? Annapolis and What’s Up? Eastern Shore magazines holds up pretty well.

We republish it here with permission of What’s Up Publishing Group. Copyright 2010. The actual layout of the article and photos are attached at the bottom of the story.

By Len Lazarick

Why do these guys hate each other so much?

Martin and Bobby, that is, or as we call both men in public: Governor.

That’s the question I was exploring with a Washingtonian magazine writer sitting at the window table at 49 West in Annapolis.

Features editor Susan Baer had just come from an interview with Governor Martin O’Malley, and we had run into each other at several events as she worked on a feature about Republican Bob Ehrlich and Democrat Martin O’Malley. [Here’s a link to her long story. http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/16855.html]

As she ate her late lunch, I was ruminating about something that I had wondered about over the last four years covering the two men.

Why do these two skilled politicians have such a visceral dislike of each other—a palpable animosity far more intense than what you usually see in electoral foes?

My firsthand knowledge of Ehrlich goes back 22 years when he was a freshman delegate, and I was managing editor of the Patuxent Publishing newspapers in Baltimore County. I’ve only known O’Malley personally since he was actively campaigning for governor, a time when other reporters tell me he had become more cautious and guarded than they experienced when he was in his free-swinging days on the Baltimore City Council.
So Much in Common

On the surface, the men have so much in common. They are separated by just five years in age; Ehrlich is 52, O’Malley 47, coming at the tail end of the baby boom. Both are native Marylanders from middle-class backgrounds who went to private schools all the way through college. By their own admission, they were just average students; they both played football in high school and still work out to stay physically fit. Both men are lawyers, married to attractive, forceful, and accomplished lawyers with separate careers. By their husbands’ accounts, both women took substantial wooing before they agreed to marry these handsome, smart, and personable males. Both have two young boys, though O’Malley got an earlier start and also has two older girls in college. Both men now live in Annapolis, and they both want to live in the same house.

But Government House on State Circle, unlike other public housing nearby, comes with chefs, butlers, police guards, chauffeurs, and a fleet of cars. And it comes with power.

The superficial similarities of their lives cover marked differences, aside from their philosophies, party labels, and their paths to power— though to start their political careers, both of these ambitious men, at the age of 27, challenged incumbent state legislators from their own parties. (Ehrlich won by a slim 90 votes, O’Malley narrowly lost by 44 votes.)

Ehrlich’s skills as an accomplished athlete from an early age gained him scholarships to Gilman and Princeton University. These elite institutions provided access to the Republican establishment that supported him from the start and took him far from his modest Arbutus roots as the son of a car salesman and secretary. He practiced business law in downtown Baltimore, but has maintained the jock image, physique, and lingo to this day.

A second-string athlete, O’Malley developed his attachment to his Irish heritage, its music and verse. As a young campaign worker — how he spent much of college and law school — he was already playing the guitar and singing for fundraisers, as he does today.

Until 2002, the men made their parallel political rise without competing or having much contact. One former Ehrlich staffer did recall a lunch the two men had in the late 1990s when both were advocating changes in the city housing department as well as Project Exile, the controversial program to shift prosecution of gun violations to federal courts.

After eight years as a delegate in the heavily Republican northern Baltimore County district to which he moved to launch his political career, Ehrlich moved up to an open seat in Congress.

A year after his first loss, embraced by his wife’s political family (long a city powerhouse), O’Malley moved up to the Baltimore City Council as an outspoken activist and, surprisingly, became the mayor of a black majority city. In 2002, he bowed to the wishes of party leaders and did not run for governor against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. In a sense, the Democratic power structure also helped push Ehrlich into the race by redrawing the congressional district lines so that he and fellow GOP incumbent Wayne Gilchrest were in the same district that was mostly Gilchrest’s turf.

If Townsend had won that ill-fated race and Ehrlich had given it a pass, we might be seeing a different contest between Ehrlich and O’Malley today.
So Why the Animosity?

One political consultant speculates that the bad blood arose simply from this head-to-head competition. In addition to their other characteristics, both men “have huge egos and high ambitions,” he says, and each is an obstacle to the other’s rise.

“I don’t think it is necessarily personal,” says the ex-Ehrlich aide.

“It is just that each guy has a titanic ego and wants the same thing the other guy wants. They didn’t hate each other at first, but they were destined to because each man, at different times, wanted the other’s job, and both men like to win.” And O’Malley dealt Ehrlich, a very competitive guy who hates to lose, his very first loss in eight election cycles.

A lobbyist who has seen both men in action muses that O’Malley’s flowery rhetoric “drives Ehrlich crazy.” The lobbyist recalled a scene in one of their two TV debates[ in 2006]: After Mayor O’Malley responded to a question with one of his typically nuanced turns of phrase, Gov. Ehrlich snapped, “Could somebody tell me what that means?”

Ehrlich, for his part, prefers short punchy answers with none of the rhetorical flourishes and wonky data O’Malley favors. O’Malley as mayor developed CitiStat, a data-based performance measurement system designed to improve city services, and then transplanted it to Annapolis as StateStat. Ehrlich can exhibit a depth of knowledge on government issues that engage him, but you’re more likely to hear sport stats from his mouth than figures about reductions in overtime use.

While talking with people who know both men and their histories, one longtime veteran of many campaigns said the deep-seated resentment was largely due to the way politics had become more personal.

“These days, your opponent doesn’t just differ with you on policy or party; he is your enemy in a fight to the death.”

Twenty-five years ago, you could be a Reagan Republican and a liberal Democrat and fight like hell, but still toss down a drink together at the end of the day. But Ehrlich is not Ronald Reagan—he doesn’t drink, for one thing—and O’Malley is not Tip O’Neill, the Boston pol who was Speaker of the House during the Reagan presidency.

To a great extent, it seems, the animosity arises from how Ehrlich treated O’Malley and the beleaguered city he was trying to govern. Right out of the box, Ehrlich grabbed Baltimore Police Commissioner Ed Norris, who seemed to be making progress on the crime O’Malley obsessed about, and made Norris head of the state police. During his tenure, Ehrlich was constantly carping about city crime and city schools, and finally championed the takeover of 11 city schools by the state, a move O’Malley vociferously opposed and Democratic allies blocked in the legislature. There were other slights from Ehrlich that Democratic chief executives complained about as well (Baltimore County’s Jim Smith and Howard County’s Jim Robey among them), calls to the governor not returned, key decisions made without consultation. Ehrlich, on the other hand, saw himself as a victim of a partisan mugging, typified by his Rodney Dangerfield-like State of the State address complaining that he got no respect.

But Maryland governors and Baltimore mayors have long had an uneasy relationship, whether the mayor was named William Donald Schaefer or Kurt Schmoke and the governor was named Harry Hughes or Schaefer.

But you couldn’t get much more personal than the persistent 2005 rumors about the O’Malleys’ marital life, rumors that their kids heard at school, rumors so dogged that Mayor O’Malley and his wife, the district court judge, had to confront them head-on in public. While the gossip spread hither and yon from many sources— who never seemed to have any firsthand knowledge other than a friend of a friend — it turned out that a low-level aide in the Ehrlich administration had helped fan the wildfire. The aide, Joe Steffen, was eventually fired, and candidates who had run against Ehrlich in the past described similar incidents of underground personal attacks that they believed Ehrlich had to be aware of.

Ehrlich didn’t disappear

These incidents would probably be enough for anyone to stoke anger, distrust, and animosity. But even after O’Malley kicked him out, Ehrlich did not disappear, the way a good loser was expected to. A few weeks after the election, Ehrlich showed up on HBO’s The Wire in a bit part portraying a security guard at the State House dealing with a mayor of Baltimore clearly modeled on O’Malley. O’Malley has long despised The Wire with its gritty depiction of drug-plagued Baltimore and the venal politicians who run it.

Soon Ehrlich was doing his own radio talk show. At first he shunned negative comments about the governor who ousted him— that was left to his wife and co-host Kendel or the guests that trashed the incumbent and pined for restoration of the Ehrlich reign.

But as the years went by, Ehrlich became freer with his explicit criticism.

As the saying goes, these guys go way back.

In the first six months of the campaign, there was a constant volley of finger-pointing and blame—you did this, but I did that, my policy is tons better than your sorry performance. One charge served, and another lobbed back. But even as they tried to contrast their records— and rewrite the past in the process—the record showed in some instance they actually pulled some of the same budget maneuvers that governors had long employed.

Both men raided reserve funds and special accounts for open space and the Bay (O’Malley replaced them with debt financing); both raised taxes or fees to patch deficits (O’Malley’s were higher); both increased aid to education as required by law (O’Malley did more); both created programs for the Chesapeake (the flush tax was Ehrlich biggest tax hike).

As the economy limps along, the next governor will face deficits in the next two years at least as bad as either man faced in his first term.

With all the budget tricks used up, a good question is why either of them wants the headaches again, even if they covet the house. But power is its own reward.

There’s no question that this is a grudge match with an underlying tone of personal spite. If the race stays as close as early polls have shown, these two Annapolitan transplants will probably be bringing their snarling antagonism to a TV screen or radio dial near you.