Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Doctor's Orders

Question: What do Don Murphy, Lawrence Scott, Julianne Grim, and I all have in common? Answer: We all worked for, and voluntarily left the campaign staff of, Dr. Eric Wargotz.

In case you didn’t know, Dr. Wargotz is a pathologist and Queen Anne’s County Commissioner running for the GOP nomination to face Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski. Once seen as having the inside track to the nomination, Dr. Wargotz seems to be falling behind his principal rival, Harford County conservative (and Tea Party favorite) Jim Rutledge. Sources tell me that polls show Rutledge winning by an overwhelming margin.

That’s a shame, because I believe Dr. Wargotz would be a stronger challenger to Mikulski for several reasons. First, he’s a self-made man whose achievements as a doctor, businessman, and local official make for a compelling story. Second, he’s more moderate than Rutledge and may therefore have broader appeal to independents and conservative Democrats. Third, he has the standing to engage Mikulski on arguably the biggest, most controversial vote she’s ever made: Her support for the Obama healthcare plan.

Do I see Wargotz beating Mikulski? Of course not. But, I could envision a situation in which he brings her numbers down under 60 percent – something that’s never happened in any of Mikulski’s races dating back to 1986.

I think Wargotz will lose the primary for two reasons: First, he has the misfortune of running as a perceived moderate in a year where conservatives are especially energized to vote in the primary. This year, GOP primary turnout will be dominated by Tea Party supporters; pro-life, pro-gun, and anti-illegal immigrant single-issue voters; and supporters of long shot gubernatorial candidate Brian Murphy. All these constituencies are more of a natural fit for Rutledge than Wargotz.

Second, Wargotz has dealt himself some self-inflicted wounds. As I mentioned earlier, he has gone through  staff the way a fat kid devours Cheetos. Now, I am not saying that Dr. Wargotz is an unpleasant guy to work for. He isn’t. But, like many doctors (including my late father), he’s used to being the smartest guy in the room, as well as in an unchallenged position of authority over others. This lends itself to micromanagement, as well as making occasionally (and unreasonably) high demands of staffers' time.

I served as his communications director from September 2009 through March of this year. I accepted the position because I sincerely believed in his candidacy. Unfortunately, his expectations of my time were not commensurate with the tiny stipend he was willing to pay me. He expected 24 hours a day, seven day a week access to me – something that became unrealistic when I landed a full-time contracting gig.

I posited a number of solutions to the situation, including setting aside one day a week which would be completely dedicated to Wargotz-related projects and communications. But the serial phone calls kept coming. The tipping point came when we scheduled a Sunday evening phone conversation for which I was about 15 minutes late. Four messages, each more frantic than the last, were already waiting for me at home. In an era of cell phones, voice mail and caller ID, one message would have sufficed. I bowed out shortly thereafter – though it took two separate resignation attempts by me before he accepted my departure.

Subsequent conversations I have had with other Wargotz alumni have revealed that they had similar experiences. Julianne Grim, his most recent staff departure, left at the end of August, just weeks prior to the primary election. His new campaign advisor, Chris Meekins, was one of the architects of Andy Harris’s embarrassing congressional defeat in 2008, despite John McCain carrying the First Congressional District by 19 points.

Dr. Wargotz is a good guy, as well as a smart, compelling candidate with a lot of potential. If the primary election does not go his way, I hope he will stay involved in politics. He would be a great congressional or legislative candidate one day. He just needs to learn to dial it down a bit. In the meantime, let the post-mortem begin on this pathologist-turned-politician's senatorial aspirations.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

No, It Was NOT All George Bush's Fault

In his August 5th column in The Gazette, Barry Rascovar – the dean of Maryland political analysts – wrote, “When Democrats went to the polls (in 2006), they punished Ehrlich for the failed policies of Republican George W. Bush, who wasn't on the ballot that year. This turned a close election into a 116,000-vote landslide for O'Malley.”

Reading Barry Rascovar’s excellent, always insightful dissections of Maryland politics over the past two decades or so inspired me to jump into the punditry game myself. That said, I respectfully disagree with anyone who perpetuates the myth that Bob Ehrlich lost in 2006 solely because of George W. Bush.

Mr. Rascovar isn’t the only respected pundit to make this claim. In a column which ran in The Gazette in summer 2009, Maryland politico Blair Lee flatly concludes that, “Ehrlich was ousted by a protest vote against George W. Bush.”

Within the Ehrlich camp, the belief that President Bush’s unpopularity was the one and only reason he lost is unassailable orthodoxy. As for me, I take the heretical view that to scapegoat Bush is to oversimplify reality.

Let me illustrate by looking at two possible “blame Bush” scenarios.

The first scenario is that President Bush’s unpopularity simply doomed the campaign. Certainly this was a relevant factor. However, had it been the predominant factor, the governors of Connecticut, Minnesota, Hawaii, and possibly California – all strongly Democratic states – would have been taken out by the same wave.

Additionally, most recent surveys have Ehrlich polling below the 47 percent he achieved in 2006. If President Bush caused Mr. Ehrlich’s loss then, shouldn’t he be enjoying more of a post-Bush bounce now - especially in light of President Obama's own fading popularity?

Further, at the zenith of his popularity in October 2002, President Bush raised $2 million for Ehrlich in Baltimore. Several months later, when Governor Ehrlich analyzed the reasons for his victory at a political dinner in Delaware, President Bush was not credited. If Ehrlich and his team believe Bush’s popularity was not a decisive factor in 2002, is it fair for them to say his unpopularity was the only factor four years later?

So, if Bush’s approval ratings aren’t solely to blame for the loss, then perhaps a second scenario applies. Maybe bad advice rather than bad polls was the real culprit. Perhaps the Bush White House was secretly managing and guiding events in the Ehrlich Administration, maybe through a daily exchange of clandestine phone calls or memos between Karl Rove and various Ehrlich aides eager to benefit from the wisdom of Bush’s architect.

In other words, in addition to everything else he has been blamed for, George W. Bush must have been secretly responsible for the following strategic decisions made by Ehrlich's State House and campaign aides:

• Declining to ask all Glendening political appointees to reapply for their jobs, which triggered other blunders and bad personnel-related decisions and culminated in the hiring/firing scandal;

• Pushing a major development deal involving state-owned land before it had been properly vetted across the administration;

• Refusing to run early TV ads promoting the governor’s achievements in favor of ineffective spots attacking Mayor O’Malley’s record on crime and schools;

• Recommending that a special session of the legislature be called to address medical malpractice reform before determining whether the resulting bill would be something the governor could actually sign (it wasn’t);

• Failing to respond quickly to the BGE rate increase, allowing opponents to frame the issue in a manner that distorted the truth and politically damaged the governor; and

• Emphasizing visits to African American churches and synagogues while taking GOP base voters for granted and ignoring key counties Mr. Ehrlich won big in 2002 yet underperformed in four years later.

I love to visit presidential libraries, and have been to the Nixon, Reagan, and Kennedy libraries on multiple occasions. I can’t wait for the George W. Bush Presidential Library to open in Dallas. Then I will be able to go there and see for myself the evidence of President Bush's hidden hand management of the Ehrlich Administration. But, I have a feeling I am going to be disappointed.

It is human nature to blame major disappointments on factors beyond our immediate control. That has likely influenced the thinking of the former governor and some of his chief aides. In Ehrlich’s case, it is comforting to think that his loss was solely the result of an unstoppable political tsunami. For his aides, it spares them the discomfort and adverse career consequences that would come from looking their boss in the eye and confessing their own mistakes.

It’s time for everyone – pundits and politicos alike – to retire the “blame Bush” argument once and for all. If Ehrlich wins, it won’t be because of Bush’s absence. It will be because, in a year hostile to incumbents, his campaign rejected old assumptions, embraced new energy, and articulated a better, forward looking vision for Maryland than his opponent.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Kevin Kamenetz and the Jerk Factor

For those of you who missed Arthur Hirsch’s article in the Baltimore Sun, “Kevin Kamenetz softens edges on Baltimore County campaign trail,” here is the link.

If I were Kamenetz, I would be pretty pissed about this article, as it paints a portrait of an unpleasant person trying to rein in his acerbic instincts in order to broaden his appeal to voters. By contrast, the accompanying article about Kamenetz’s primary rival, Joe Bartenfelder, portrays him as an authentic, easy-going everyman.

Kamenetz’s arrogant nature is no secret to those of us who have been involved in local politics. It's earned him a reputation as the Baltimore County Council's insult comic-in-residence. I witnessed it myself back in 1996, when I had the misfortune of spending an evening with him. One of my friends who worked for then-County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger invited me to a function at the Towson Sheraton. Afterwards, a bunch of us – Kamenetz included – adjourned to the hotel bar for drinks and conversation.

It was clear from the outset that Kamenetz is one of those people who regards Republicans – even confirmed moderates like me – as naive at best, and venal at worst. During the entire night, he kept making remarks intended to both belittle me and push my buttons. His favorite targets included what he assumed my ideology to be (“I don’t know how right wing YOU are, but…”) and my then-boss and his former Gilman classmate, Bob Ehrlich (“Gerry Brewster and I were in the political club, and Bob Ehrlich only played football”).  Personality wise, Kamenetz seemed better suited to be a prep school dean of students than a successful politician.

Success in the political arena hinges upon tolerance, patience, gregariousness, and a good sense of humor. That night, Kamenetz exhibited none of these qualities.

Of course, that was a long time ago, and people do change. The article indicated that Kamenetz has mellowed, and I believe it. I also think he is intelligent and a hard worker with a solid grasp of county issues.

Conventional wisdom dictates that Kamenetz is the favorite in the Democratic primary. If he defeats Bartenfelder, it will be interesting to see how Kamenetz’s personality and establishment politician status factor into the general election campaign. Personally, I think people want to vote for someone who will lead, not lecture.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Read My Lips...Oh, You Know The Rest

Today, gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich stated that, if he’s reelected to his old job, he will not raise any taxes or fees. This promise goes way beyond the one he made in 2002, when he declared that he would not support any “sales or income tax” increases.

Why did Ehrlich broaden his declaration?

First, he’s running against a Democratic governor whose popularity took a hit when he raised a litany of taxes not long after taking office. To date, facing a looming $1 billion budget deficit, Governor O’Malley has equivocated on whether he’d raise taxes during a second term. Today’s declaration is calculated to frame the race as a stark contrast between “anti-tax” and “pro-tax” candidates.

Second, Ehrlich’s primary opponent, Brian Murphy, criticizes Ehrlich for being a tax and spend governor. Ehrlich’s declaration is an attempt to inoculate his candidacy from such criticism. While there is virtually no chance Murphy can win, tapping into lingering resentment over Ehrlich’s own tax and fee increases among some conservatives could boost Murphy's numbers into the embarrassment zone for Ehrlich.

While I believe Ehrlich’s declaration makes some short term political sense, it may come back to haunt him later for a number of reasons.

First, Ehrlich’s pledge could be interpreted as, at best, a mea culpa and, at worst, flip-flopping. In other words, he exposes himself to the following question: If you believe that raising fees is a bad thing, then why did you do it so often during your first term?

Second, Ehrlich’s promise makes him vulnerable to charges of fiscal irresponsibility. Earlier in the campaign, he promised to repeal O'Malley's 20 percent increase in the state sales tax. Just recently, he pledged to restore $60 million in road maintenance money to counties. To date, however, he hasn't articulated how these proposals are feasible during such tough budgetary times.

Rather than invoke the spirit of George H. W. Bush and his infamous “no new taxes” pledge, I think Ehrlich could better differentiate himself from O’Malley by taking two steps.

First, he should give a speech in which offers a compelling case as to why fees differ from taxes. And, he needs to illustrate his case with examples of expenditures (e. g. highway projects) that the increased revenue was used to finance. This will allow him to settle the issue and move forward. Otherwise, the O’Malley campaign will continue its shrewd tactic of trying to equalize both governors on the whole taxes/spending issue – something which benefits O’Malley in the long run.

Second, he needs to step away from politics as usual in favor of a big idea. For example perhaps Ehrlich should demonstrate that he is serious about reducing the size of state government by outlining a plan to reduce the state workforce – now approximately 80,000 workers strong – by 20 percent through attrition over the course of ten years. He could tie it to a specific plan to boost private sector job growth during the same period.

Is such a strategy risky? Yes, it is. But, campaign are usually won by the candidate who sets the agenda. A bold maneuver might help put Ehrlich in control of a campaign increasingly dominated by his better-funded opponent.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tidbits From The Campaign Trail

This week, during some of my interactions with various friends across the political spectrum, I heard the following morsels of gossip from the gubernatorial campaign trail:

1) The closing date for the next state campaign finance report is Monday, August 30th. I heard that Team Ehrlich, in an attempt to grow their numbers prior to the report, has attempted tapping political sources for quick cash. First, they are approaching Republican legislators for $6,000 cash transfers from their state accounts into the Ehrlich account. Now, I have no idea how successful the strategy has been - I guess we'll know when the next report comes out - or how many legislators they've tapped overall. But, I am personally aware of two that were approached for money by campaign staff. And, I have heard that many are grumbling over the fact that, when Ehrlich spoke to the GOP legislative caucus after the 2010 session, he said he wasn't in a position to raise money for them, and that his support would have to be limited to endorsements. This is what they call irony, folks.

2) The second potential fundraising source tapped by Ehrlich and crew is the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D. C. This overture was unsuccessful, however, as Team Ehrlich was advised just within the past two weeks that it wasn't appropriate for the RGA to give money to candidates facing primary opponents. Ehrlich is, of course, facing businessman Brian Murphy in the September 14th primary. It will be interesting to see if the RGA will open its wallet for Ehrlich after he triumphs over his passionate but in-over-his-head opponent.

3) My last tidbit concerns Ehrlich's nemesis, Governor Martin O'Malley. Apparently Steve Kearney - O'Malley's communications director in both City Hall and the State House - has joined his campaign as a consultant. Kearney left the State House to start his own public affairs firm with Damian O'Doherty, formerly a senior aide to Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith. Now, I first met Steve when he was working for the mayor and I was at Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. I reconnected with him recently when we both did MPT's State Circle program. I regard him to be a talented Democratic communications professional. Some of the course correcting we have witnessed in O'Malley's communications strategy -  using the gubernatorial bully pulpit more effectively to promote good news, and jettisoning those head-scratching radio ads blaming Ehrlich for the Gulf oil spill in favor of polished and professional TV ads touting O'Malley's record - may bear Kearney's imprimateur.

So, that's the latest gossip. Those of you who know me know that I keep my ear pretty close to the ground, so I will continue to post future tidbits as I hear them.

Who Are You & Why Are You Interviewing Me?

The Maryland Democratic Party has released another of its You Tube attack ads against Bob Ehrlich:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cEzPA3C7N8

Back in 2006, these things seemed kind of cutting edge. Now, they seem tired and maybe a little desperate. But, this one intrigues me because of the fact that Ehrlich seems to have made himself so readily available to what was clearly a put-up interview.

I mean, who's the guy interviewing him? I am fairly familiar with the local political press, and don't recognize the interviewer. How did the interview come to pass? Did someone from the Maryland Democratic Party call Ehrlich's press office and pitch a faux interview scenario which they subsequently accepted? If that happened, did Henry Fawell or Andy Barth get their butts handed to them? Or did Greg Massoni, in the interest of Democratic outreach, fall into old habits and operate the camera?

All teasing aside, the ad seems silly. Still, Ehrlich could do a better job delineating the differences between "taxes" and "fees." I know what the difference between "dedicated funds" and the "General Fund" is, but question whether most Marylanders do - or, if those that do actually care which state till the money coming out of their pockets is going.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Brian Murphy: A Bang or a Whimper?

For a couple months now, my political friends and I have been trying to handicap how much of the vote gubernatorial long-shot candidate Brian Murphy will attract in the GOP primary. I have heard estimates ranging from 9 percent up to 35 percent.

Today, Center Maryland released a poll that shows Murphy polling in the low end of the range:

http://articles.centermaryland.org/?p=1601

The poll also shows 11 percent of likely GOP primary voters as being undecided. Assuming 2/3rds of these votes break against Bob Ehrlich – which is how undecided voters usually break when a challenger faces an incumbent, and Ehrlich is the incumbent in the nomination race – Murphy’s numbers could reach if not top 20 percent.

Before the poll, I predicted Murphy would reach 22 percent in the primary. I am sticking by that prediction for three reasons:

1) Murphy has no chance of beating Ehrlich in the primary. Ehrlich’s supporters know that, and may therefore be less likely to vote on September 14th. By contrast, Murphy’s supporters fall into two basic groups: 1) die-hard supporters; and 2) people who plan to vote for Ehrlich in November but want to send him a message in the primary. Both may be more motivated to show up at the polls.

2) Murphy has reached out to three key single-issue voting constituencies among the GOP base: 1) pro-life voters; 2) gun owners; and 3) anti-illegal immigrant voters. Passions run high among all three groups, whose voters seem more of a natural fit for social conservative Murphy than social moderate Ehrlich in the GOP primary.

3) The other statewide race which may mobilize GOP voters is for the U. S. Senate, where Harford County conservative Jim Rutledge is facing moderate doctor turned Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Eric Wargotz. I believe Wargotz (for whom I briefly worked) would be a stronger candidate to stand against incumbent Senator Barbara Mikulski. But I also believe Rutledge’s supporters are so passionate about their candidate that they may be more inclined to show up and vote. This may, in turn, benefit Brian Murphy, whose supporters shares some synergies with Rutledge's supporters.

Despite the fact that Ehrlich remains a popular figure among state Republicans, he has some fences to mend among those who remain upset about tax, fees, and spending increases when he was governor, as well as his stance on issues like stem cell research. It is not clear the extent to which Ehrlich’s campaign team recognizes this as a problem.

Asked about conservative unrest back in 2006, Bernie Marczyk – the campaign’s then-and-again Political Director – responded, “Where else are they going to go?” The answer to that question was, “Not to the polls,” as GOP turnout dropped five percent in 2006 compared to 2002.

Murphy’s primary performance will be the first clear indication as to how giant the hole in the fence is. If Murphy peaks at around 20 percent, I think Ehrlich survives the perception game. If Murphy does defy expectations and polls 30 percent of the primary vote, Ehrlich has big problems.

Money Mystery Solved

Well, it looks like we’ve tracked down where the Rule 11 money actually went: The Maryland Republican Party.

Through an exchange I had with an anonymous poster leaving comments on a friend’s blog, I was directed to the following release issued by the State GOP on August 12:

http://www.gop.com/index.php/news/comments/republican_national_committee_and_the_maryland_republican_party_announce_d2/

So, it looks like the money will be spent by the state GOP on behalf of Bob Ehrlich and Andy Harris, whose candidacies prompted the Rule 11 waiver request, rather than by the campaigns themselves. Reports in The Gazette referred to “the campaigns” getting the money.

As far as I could tell, the monies weren’t included in the last report filed by the GOP State Central Committee, whose contributions largely matched their expenditures. Presumably that means the money has just started flowing, and will be used to finance the outreach offices which the party is opening all across the state.

No official word on how much the state GOP got – though I have heard it was $1 million. If so, this money will help the party counter the Maryland Democratic Party’s ambition GOTV and early voting initiatives.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where Did The Rule 11 Money Go?

Back in May, The Gazette newspaper and other media sources reported that the Republican National Committee waived a rule banning it from making contributions to GOP candidates running in contested primaries so it could infuse badly-needed cash into the campaign of just-announced gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich.

Waiving so-called Rule No. 11, which bans contributions of money or in-kind aid to GOP candidates who are not unopposed or in races where the filing deadline has not yet passed, required the concurrence of Maryland’s RNC committeeman and committeewoman, Louis Pope and Joyce Tehres, and state GOP chair Audrey Scott. The move angered supporters of Brian Murphy, Ehrlich’s long-shot primary rival.

At the time, Chairman Scott explained that the RNC had made Maryland’s governor's race a, “priority race, and when that happens they're inclined to support that race financially.” Chairman Scott’s comments implied, as did the article itself, that the monies would be going directly to the Ehrlich campaign.

But today, as I looked at Ehrlich’s campaign finance report, I did not see any reference to the RNC money. Moreover, I did not see any reference to a sizable RNC lump-sum payment to the state GOP central committee, either.

Can anyone shed any light on this matter? Has the money been paid yet? If so, which account received it? And, how much money was involved? I heard from more than one party activist back in May that the amount totaled $1 million, but do not know that to be a fact. I am genuinely curious to see if it was used for Ehrlich campaign start-up costs, or if it is dedicated to other purposes such as the party's ambitious GOTV efforts.

O'Malley vs. Ehrlich - Still A Horse Race

So, the latest Rasmussen Poll of the governor’s race in Maryland still has it as a tossup, with O’Malley at 45 percent and Ehrlich with 44 percent.

I find it interesting that the race remains this close. After all, O’Malley is running TV ads and Ehrlich hasn’t. O’Malley has started using the bully pulpit of his office to publicize good news – such as recent figures showing an increase in adoptions in Maryland – while Ehrlich’s PR team has not scheduled any events which have generated significant earned media for a while. O’Malley’s job approval rating has jumped four points since July to 54 percent, and his favorability rating is 56 percent – respectable figures in an anti-incumbent year.

Still, Ehrlich is very much in the hunt. One of the reasons may have something to do with the following: While 90 percent of Republicans back Ehrlich, only 70 percent of Democrats support O’Malley.

To win, O’Malley will need to make every supporter he does have count. That means waging an aggressive voter mobilization strategy to turn out his supporters in what nationally will be an unfriendly year for Democrats. Energizing black voters, who comprise 30 percent of the state’s electorate, is a key part of that strategy.

The Maryland Democratic Party just reported raising $1.5 million, and still has $1.3 million cash on hand. Look for most of this money to be used to build a program which aggressively leverages the state’s new early voting law.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Smart Grid, Shrewd Politics

This week, the Maryland Public Service Commission approved BGE’s plans to deploy “Smart Grid” technology across Maryland, ending a saga which began in June.

Smart Grid technology allows consumers to better track and control energy usage, resulting in significant energy and cost savings. The PSC’s action preserves Maryland’s eligibility for $200 million in federal stimulus grant monies earmarked for Smart Grid projects.

The whole Smart Grid saga has received significant local media attention during the past two months. Absent from all the coverage, however, was the extent to which gubernatorial politics guided the outcome.

Flash back to 2006, when BGE customers were hit with 70 percent rate increases. Then-Mayor Martin O’Malley used the issue as a weapon in his contest again Governor Bob Ehrlich. O’Malley assigned all blame for the rate increase to Ehrlich and the members of his Public Service Commission, promising to roll back the increases if he won. And, he got away with it.

Of course, Governor O’Malley and his own Public Service Commission failed to deliver on these promises.

Now, as Governor O’Malley fights to keep his job, his overpromising remains an area of vulnerability with voters. However, with jobs and the economy dominating the agenda, it’s doubtful that lingering angst over a four-year-old rate increase will determine the election outcome.

That is, unless new developments reignite voters’ anger – as the inconvenient emergence of the Smart Grid issue right in the middle of the 2010 election cycle threatened to do.

The $835 million plan BGE submitted to the PSC in June – which the PSC rejected – called upon ratepayers to shoulder most of the upfront costs.

The PSC’s rejection allowed the commissioners to position themselves as pro-consumer watchdogs, inoculating Governor O’Malley from charges that he presided over another de facto looming rate increase for BGE customers.

But the plan passed by the PSC in August does not insulate consumers from the cost of Smart Grid. It merely prohibits BGE from recouping Smart Grid costs – an estimated $1.10 per month per ratepayer over the course of 10 years – until 2014 at the earliest.

In effect, the PSC skillfully punted the Smart Grid issue down the road and out of the 2010 cycle.

And, no one in the media or the GOP called them out on it.

The PSC’s initial protests against Smart Grid were calculated and misleading, a transparent example of partisan regulators grandstanding for voters. But it also represents shrewd political gamesmanship in a competitive election year.

Like they did in 2006, the Democrats manipulated facts and circumstances to deflect the political fallout resulting from a potentially damaging energy rate increase. And, like they did in 2006, they will probably get away with it.

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.

Bob Ehrlich, Leo McGarry, and “My Guy”

For years, friends have been bugging me to start my own blog, but the timing never seemed quite right. But now, in 2010, with the kind of election cycle political junkies like me live for brewing in Maryland and across the nation, I finally reached my “now or never” moment. So here I am…finally, belated. Here’s the Richard Cross blog so many of you asked about.

I figured that the first entry should answer the question people keep asking me: “Are you working on Bob Ehrlich’s campaign this year?”

Well, the answer to that question is no. This year, I’m sitting the marquee governor’s contest out, except for voting and occasional commentary here and in the Baltimore Sun

Let me just say that I think Bob Ehrlich is a great guy. I first met him in 1988, when I was a student at Johns Hopkins University and he was a freshman legislator. Six years later, he hired me to serve as his first press secretary on Capitol Hill. Then, when he ran for governor in 2002, I worked on his campaign and, ultimately, as his State House speechwriter. He and his wife Kendel have been forces for good in my life and career, and I will always be grateful.

But sometimes in life, you have to distance yourself from what you know. So, I took a step back from all things Ehrlich for three basic reasons.

The first reason is disagreement. I believe Governor Ehrlich lost in 2006 because of an election year unfavorable to Republicans, strong institutional advantages favoring Democrats in Maryland, and some bad strategic calls on the part of the Ehrlich campaign. Governor Ehrlich’s former and current aides attributed the loss to one single factor: George W. Bush.

The “Blame Bush” argument fails on two levels. First, it is intellectually dishonest, as every other incumbent GOP governor running for election in November 2006 won – even in states nearly as Democratic as Maryland. Second, it is self-serving in that its loudest advocates are those whose fingerprints are on the loss, allowing them to sidestep accountability by blaming events on some unstoppable external force.

I disagreed with the sanctioned, George Bush-centric account of events, and was subsequently regarded as something of a heretic within Ehrlich’s inner circle, especially when I spoke out publicly. I didn’t do it to be difficult or disloyal. I did it because only by openly accepting the reasons behind the loss could the party learn from its mistakes and move forward.

The second reason is growth. Yes, serving as the speechwriter to the governor is a tremendous honor. But it had its limitations, too. Governor Ehrlich did not believe he needed a full-time speechwriter, meaning that – with the exception of major addresses such as MACo and the State of the State speech – I was largely unchallenged by my daily responsibilities.

When I approached senior aides about taking on a new role, they listened attentively, nodded politely, and did little. In effect, I had been typecast in the role of organizational writer. I could have lived with the typecasting had I been utilized. But, sitting in the State House mired in boredom, watching as junior aides with more zeal than wisdom were fast-tracked for growth-oriented positions, proved demoralizing.

Were I to be welcomed back into the Ehrlich fold, I have no doubt that they would ask me to play the same superfluous writer role I have always played. For the sake of my sanity and professional development, I needed to break out of the very narrow silo to which the organization had relegated me.

The third reason is the “My Guy” factor. That refers to an exchange between Leo McGarry and Josh Lyman, two characters on the TV show “The West Wing.” Josh is leaving the Bartlet White House to work for a presidential candidate, and asks McGarry to come along. McGarry smiles and shakes his head, explaining, “I already found my guy,” referring to the incumbent.

Bob Ehrlich 2002 was my guy. No subsequent gubernatorial candidate – not even Bob Ehrlich 2010 – will ever inspire the kind of excitement and satisfaction I felt during that campaign. For me, doing it all again reeks of redundancy.

So, there it is. I’m going to enjoy watching the great game of gubernatorial politics unfold during the next few months. But this time, I am content to play the role of observer and occasional analyst. It’s going to be a fun ride. I hope you’ll come along with me.