Getting 30 percent of Dem vote key for Ehrlich
Republican gubernatorial hopeful addresses pensions, business, gaming and transportation
For former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., 30 is the magic number as in 30 percent of the Democratic vote this November.
That's what Ehrlich says he needs to defeat Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in a rematch of their 2006 race, which O'Malley won by 7 percentage points.
With Republicans outnumbered by a margin of more than 2 to 1 in Maryland, Ehrlich (R) told The Gazette editorial board this week that crossover Democrats hold the key to his re-election prospects and are a significant part of his campaign's outreach strategy.
"We're focusing on getting our base vote out," Ehrlich said. "For me, part of my base vote is those crossover Democrats. I represented a lot of them in my congressional seat. People forget my congressional seat was a majority Democratic district it wasn't even close, but it was a safe seat for me, so I have demonstrated that crossover appeal."
Despite frequently saying he needs to do better in Montgomery County than in 2006, Ehrlich acknowledged having to rely heavily on the blue-collar Baltimore suburbs, which are rife with middle-of-the-road Democrats who have supported him in the past.
Registration numbers alone don't tell the whole story about how Maryland Democrats will vote Nov. 2.
"The fact that you're a Maryland Democrat gives no insight as to where you are on issues," Ehrlich said. "[Fifty-seven] percent of folks in Maryland are Democrats, and you have Dundalk Democrats and Potomac Democrats and there's very little similarity between the two of them."
An independent pollster in Maryland agreed Ehrlich's political fate rests on Democrats' shoulders.
"If he gets 30 percent of the Democratic vote, he wins big time," said Patrick E. Gonzales, president of Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies Inc.
His firm's most recent poll in July showed Ehrlich receiving only 19 percent of the Democratic vote, with 10 percent of Democrats undecided on whom they would vote for. The survey of 807 likely voters put O'Malley ahead of Ehrlich, 45 percent to 42 percent.
At the time, Gonzales said Ehrlich needed to get between 25 percent and 30 percent of the Democratic vote to win. But if turnout is extremely low, as it was in last month's primary election, that number decreases, he said.
In a deep-blue state such as Maryland, Ehrlich said he knows the stars have to align for a Republican to be competitive and he thinks they have.
"To win in Maryland, a Republican has to be close to perfect," he said. "You have to have a somewhat vulnerable Democrat, the environment has to allow Democrats to cross over, and you have to be a little lucky. Most of those elements are here in this environment."
During the wide-ranging, hourlong editorial board meeting, Ehrlich touched on the state's troubled pension system, the business environment, bringing table games to state casinos and transportation.
He said he would support moving new Maryland state employees to a defined contribution system, like a 401(k), instead of the more costly defined benefits system state workers currently enjoy.
"The era of defined contributions is coming to the public sector. It came to the private sector in the 1980s," he said. "Going forward, it has to be if you're anyway serious about this as a leader or a candidate because the numbers simply don't work out. Even with a gradual recovery on Wall Street, the numbers don't work out."
To inspire confidence in the private sector, Ehrlich said the state business community needs "a home run" soon. He didn't elaborate on what that might be, but said it's important for the state to send a signal that "Maryland is a state you can trust again, that we're not going to kill you."
He offered harsh words for the state Department of Business and Economic Development "DBED is just irrelevant today" and the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
"Those two agencies are the most broken when it comes to job creation or lack thereof," he said.
Ehrlich said he would be open to expanding gambling to allow table games at existing slots venues, but only if the General Assembly lowers the 67 percent tax rate for casino operators.
Scarce transportation dollars should be spent on improving existing transit systems instead of being committed to future projects that are both costly and controversial, Ehrlich said.
"I'd rather fix Metro and MARC first than talk about light-rail lines we're not going to build," he said.
If he wins his old job back, bus rapid transit for the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway and the Purple Line would be two of Ehrlich's top two transit priorities, he said.
He reiterated his staunch opposition to the $1.8 billion Red Line, a proposed 14-mile light-rail connection between Woodlawn in Baltimore County and east Baltimore.
"I'd rather throw scarce resources short term into systems that people use and need to work rather than light-rail lines in Baltimore where if the Ravens and Orioles aren't playing, nobody's on them," he said.
Rapid bus lines that use dedicated lanes would be cheaper, at least as effective as light rail and quicker to implement, Ehrlich said.
The Corridor Cities Transitway would link the Shady Grove Metro station in Gaithersburg to Clarksburg, with long-term plans that would extend to Frederick.
The 16-mile Purple Line would stretch from Bethesda to New Carrollton and has long been desired by political and business leaders in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Last week, the Greater Washington Board of Trade endorsed O'Malley over Ehrlich, whom it endorsed in 2002 and 2006, partially because of Ehrlich's opposition to the light-rail option.
But, at an estimated $1.6 billion, light rail is unaffordable, Ehrlich said.
"Even conceptually, if you like light rail as your chosen alternative for the Purple Line, nobody can tell me where the money is coming from," he said. "We don't have the money, plain and simple."
O'Malley, who is a proponent of both light-rail systems, has not said how he envisions paying for the high-dollar projects.
Ehrlich said he prefers using limited resources on fixing escalators at Metro systems and making other systemic upgrades. He also favors improving the MARC commuter system, which came under intense criticism this summer when a train broke down outside Washington and left hundreds of passengers stranded in the oppressive heat.
"It's a quality-of-lifestyle issue for a lot of Marylanders and we've seen some of the horror stories there," Ehrlich said, referring to the June 21 incident.
The Board of Trade's endorsement of his rival notwithstanding, Ehrlich described the response to his anti-light-rail stance in Montgomery County as "mixed, but not nearly as hostile as I thought it would be."