Monday, August 16, 2010

What’s The Deal With Andy Barth?

A few months ago, I went through my video archives, and came across a WMAR news clip from 1995, when Bob Ehrlich was a freshman congressman and I his press secretary. It was the first time he sat down with a reporter from one of the Baltimore TV stations in his D.C. office.

The reporter who interviewed him then – Andy Barth – now holds my old job.

I remember Andy Barth as being a nice guy who immediately made a positive impression on the congressman. Ehrlich liked his authenticity, decency, and sense of fairness. He quickly became one of Ehrlich’s favorite go-to reporters. And, when the former governor hired him for his campaign, I wasn’t surprised at all.

After all, Barth’s years on WMAR give him an instant connection with citizens in Central Maryland, as well as a built-in sense of legitimacy.

Barth joined a campaign organization populated by seasoned campaign communicators. Campaign manager Paul Schurick was communications director for both Governors Schaefer and Ehrlich at different points of his career. And Barth’s boss Henry Fawell, the campaign’s present communications director, has been with Ehrlich for a decade.

These guys have worked together for a very long time. Trust me … this can be a tough unit for outsiders to penetrate.

That may in fact be the reason why Barth seems to be struggling in his role. I say that based on two recent incidents as reported by the Baltimore Sun, as well as conversations I have had with those closely following the race.

On August 4th, Laura Vozzella reported in her column that the Ehrlich campaign hired Julius Henson as a consultant. In 2002, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend fired Henson when he called Ehrlich “a Nazi.”

So what did Barth have to say about this?

“Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth said former Governor Ehrlich is letting bygones be bygones. ‘Well, sometimes in life, things get said that you later reconsider and change your mind,’ Barth said.”

There is something unsettling about listening to a Jewish-American press secretary working for a German-American political candidate so easily dismiss the ugliest label in politics.

On August 16th, Julie Bykowicz reported that the Ehrlich campaign agreed to a debate on the Mark Plotkin radio show on WTOP, yet was unwilling to concede that the debate would be moderated by Plotkin himself.

“Asked why Ehrlich didn't recognize Plotkin as the host of the Oct. 29 event, Barth wrote in an e-mail: ‘(W)e haven’t heard from the O’Malley people, and there remain several aspects of any debate to be discussed. We have the highest regard for everyone at WTOP, and look forward to a debate occurring there ...’”

Ehrlich has appeared on the Plotkin show before, and even hosted his own show on WBAL. You would therefore assume the campaign would grasp the sensitivities of telling a radio show host that the candidate would appear on his show, provided someone else hosts it. Yet Barth handled the incident as gracefully as a man stepping on a rake in his backyard. Thunk!

Further, I have heard from numerous sources that Barth seems to have little autonomy in fielding reporters’ inquiries. Instead, “Let me check” and “I will get back to you” have become common campaign refrains.

So how does Andy Barth deliver value to the campaign? Well, he appears to be falling back on what he knows: Performing campaign-themed "man on the street" interviews for faux news pieces warehoused on YouTube.

Look, Barth is a decent man, and I don’t envy him trying to integrate into such an insular group. But being a successful campaign spokesman requires a very different skill set than working in local TV news. If Ehrlich’s comeback bid succeeds, it will be interesting to see where exactly in state government Andy Barth lands.

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