Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Robocalls: Why I Don’t Think Ehrlich Knew

This week, the two principal figures in the robocall scandal, Paul Schurick and Julius Henson, had the first of many upcoming days in court. As this matter plays out in the months ahead, I suspect a third figure – former Governor Bob Ehrlich – may become a de facto presence overshadowing the proceedings.
As I have expressed before, I do not believe Ehrlich played any role whatsoever in conceiving and fielding the robocalls. In my exchanges with members of the press and my thoughtful liberal friends, I sense a certain degree of skepticism surrounding this conclusion. I understand this skepticism. After all, the robocall has become such a big deal on Maryland’s political landscape that, for some, it stands to reason that the guy whose name was on all the signs and bumperstickers would have to know about it, too.
If I thought Ehrlich was personally responsible, I would not hesitate to call him out on it here. But knowing the man, and having worked for him in three separate capacities, all my experience tells me that he was not.
For me, it boils down to three reasons.
1) Ehrlich is not stupid: Setting aside the legal and ethical problems posed by the robocalls, the biggest reason not to do it was the fact that it was a pointless exercise.  All indications are that, by late October 2010, Team Ehrlich knew the race was a lost cause. Even if all of the 112,000 call recipients had, impossibly, decided not to vote, Ehrlich still would have lost by more than twice his 2006 margin of defeat. It was a high risk maneuver yielding no discernible benefit.
Historically speaking, Ehrlich has always impressed me as an intelligent man with astute political instincts. By the time 2002 presented an opportunity for the GOP to win in Maryland, Ehrlich was not just the strongest candidate, but the only candidate positioned to make the run for governor. His political instincts are what guided him to that point.
So, I cannot imagine the guy I worked for ever thinking that this stinker of an idea was  desirable under any circumstances. In fact, people close to him have told me that, since this scandal broke, he has asked the remnants of his inner circle to explain to him exactly what the point of the robocalls was.
2) Ehrlich is not a micromanager: Ehrlich hires people with whom he is personally comfortable, and then trusts them to perform the operational details of their jobs. Coming from a man long accustomed to being nurtured, looked after, and mentored by people - loving parents, loyal coaches, generous academic and legal role models, senior legislative colleagues, and vigilant staff - this seems, on the surface, like a reasonable outlook on life for him to have.

For him, every new member of the team is as loyal, and as competent, as its oldest member because it has always been that way. This generous, deferential approach to senior staff guided Ehrlich’s management of his congressional office and campaigns, and it was evident in the State House as well.
So, when it came to the minutiae of 2010 campaign strategy, Ehrlich naturally deferred to veteran Paul Schurick and the campaign third-stringers under him.  In effect, Ehrlich was the owner watching his team from the skybox, and Schurick was the coach calling the plays on the field.
Two incidents illustrate this point for me.
The first involved a candidate for the Baltimore County Council who approached Ehrlich to tape a robocall last fall. Ehrlich enthusiastically agreed. But when the candidate contacted Bernie Marczyk, the campaign’s Political Director and a close Schurick confederate, he was rebuffed. The candidate in question wound up narrowly losing his race.
In the second incident, a state senate candidate requested that Ehrlich do a mailing for him.  Once again, Ehrlich agreed and Marczyk said no. This candidate fielded it anyway using material recycled from past mailings, and ultimately won his race
So, while Ehrlich’s opinion on day to day campaign strategy was relevant, his was not the final word. He practiced extreme deference as a manager, trusting others to carry things out. And, he rarely followed up with people to ensure his will was done.
3) Ehrlich is a lawyer: The law under which Schurick and Henson have been charged was passed by the legislature in 2006. To enact it, the legislature had to override a gubernatorial veto. The governor who issued that veto was…attorney Bob Ehrlich.

Because Ehrlich is an attorney as well as the man who vetoed the law in question, I have to believe he was knowledgeable of its existence and sensitive to the possible illegalities and consequences of fielding the robocall.

I'm aware that I'm probably no longer on Ehrlich's Christmas card list due to my outspokenness. But I will always regard him as a fundamentally decent, honest, law-abiding man. The Ehrlich I worked for would have flipped out over the fact that the call went out without an authority line, let alone its controversial message.
What I think happened is that Team Ehrlich knew the race was lost, and the campaign’s decision-making processes were compromised by a “The Death Star is about to explode” sense of panic and disengagement. In the waning moments of the campaign, the robocall idea was hurriedly hatched by Julius Henson and approved by Paul Schurick, for reasons I have yet to hear anyone coherently explain.

By then, many of Ehrlich’s greybeards and senior advisors from prior campaigns had been pushed out of Ehrlich's insular political circle by Schurick and others trying to protect their influence. Those who still lingered were not engaged or proximate enough to vet the idea and recognize it for the looming disaster that it was. 

And, neither was Ehrlich himself.
Now, while I am confident Ehrlich played no part in the decision-making chain, the question of whether or not he knew about it before news broke on Election Day is a more complicated question. My friend and fellow blogger Joe Steffen identifies a scenario in which this is plausible.
It is certainly possible that some misguided individuals inside the campaign bubble regarded this as a brilliant idea, and that Ehrlich’s guffawing sidekick Greg Massoni bragged about it to him in an attempt to provide amusement value to his boss.  But if he did it, I’m still not convinced that he shared enough details for Ehrlich to make a global judgment as to its wisdom or legality.
In my opinion, if Ehrlich knew anything, it’s probably only that “silly stuff” – the term he once used to describe Election Day hijinks to the Washington Post – was afoot.
All that said…should Ehrlich have known about the robocall? Well, that’s the most complicated question of all, and one I will leave to a future blog post.


  1. If you watched the News of the World Hearings in the UK parliament, a term that got a lot of attention was "willful blindness" If Bob didn't know (and I'm not saying he didn't), it was because he deliberately avoided knowing.

  2. I agree with your perspective. At heart, Ehrlich is n honest man, and that is why he's not the governor now.