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First Click, Maryland -- Steele cuts both ways

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Monday, April 5, 2010:

The Agenda

Me in dots.jpgIn theory, at least, having Maryland's former lieutenant governor leading the Republican National Committee should be a big plus for the state GOP this year.

This is particularly true for former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who is set to announce his bid to get his old job back on Wednesday. Ehrlich's rematch with Martin O'Malley (D) is one of 37 governor's races on the ballot this fall. Though confirmation of Ehrlich's entry has improved the party's chances in the eyes of national prognosticators, the RNC still must prioritize the races worthy of its attention and resources. And Maryland remains on the bubble.

Steele head scratcher.jpgThis is where having Michael S. Steele as chairman should be an advantage. Ehrlich plucked Steele out of relative obscurity when he put him on his ticket in 2002. Not to take anything away from Steele since then, but it's hard to imagine a path leading to his chairmanship absent that decision by Ehrlich. Moreover, Steele, who ran for U.S. Senate himself in 2006, understands the politics of the state -- and its promise and pitfalls for Republicans -- better than anyone else who competed for the RNC chairmanship.

Cut to present-day reality.

In a deep Sunday profile, our colleagues Philip Rucker and Amy Gardner wrote that while Republicans are winning nationally, "Steele has put a public face on what had been largely a behind-the-scenes job, hoping to foster what he has called a 'hip-hop' Republican renaissance. That high profile has been accompanied by a record of lavish spending and a string of gaffes, leading some party activists to complain that Steele revels in the perks of the office while neglecting some of the onerous work necessary to reclaim majorities in the House and Senate. This narrative grew more damaging last week with the disclosure that RNC staffers approved a $1,900 bill at a Hollywood nightclub that features topless dancers mimicking lesbian sex acts while wearing bondage gear."

Among the fallout from the nightclub story was a directive from Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization, urging several hundred thousand supporters not to give money to the RNC. And Steele's leadership was fodder on the Sunday talk shows, with two top congressional Republicans side-stepping questions about whether he should step down.

With Ehrlich set to launch his campaign this week, it's only a matter of time before he gets drawn into the debate -- and that's a distraction he doesn't particularly need.

Bob and Kendel.jpgEhrlich's wife, former first lady Kendel Ehrlich, was asked about the controversy during an appearance on "Square Off," a talk show on WMAR, Baltimore's ABC affiliate, that aired Sunday night. Asked if Steele should be ousted as RNC chairman, she said: "I don't know that this rises to that type of level." But she hardly offered a ringing endorsement of Steele's spending, saying: "That's not a good use of people's money. That's not why they're giving to the party."

Among those most anxious to hear from Bob Ehrlich on the subject are Steele's counterparts at the Democratic National Committee.

"In the wake of (Steele's) profligate spending on office redecorating and bondage-themed sex clubs, it's not surprising that Kendel Ehrlich's joined Tony Perkins in having lost confidence in Michael Steele's ability to run an operation -- which raises the question of Bob Ehrlich's judgment when he put Michael Steele in a position to run a state," said DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan.

Sevugan, it should be noted, served as the communications director for O'Malley's 2006 campaign -- and is among those in that organization paying close attention to Maryland politics this year.

-- John Wagner


News You Should Know (Weekend Roundup)

County budget cuts, part one: A case of duplicity in Montgomery
Skateboard.jpg"Unlike on television, or in much of the country, there is no Parks and Recreation Department in Montgomery. There's a Parks. And there's a Recreation. There are two budgets, two sets of employees, two directors, two registration Web sites," writes The Post's Michael Laris. "In a vast local government like Montgomery's, where even the scaled-back budget proposal tops $4.3 billion, opportunities for savings are plentiful. Tradition, law and years of flush budgets have helped split Montgomery's government into fiefdoms handling similar tasks."

Part two: Mismanaging long-term goals in Prince George's?
"Of all the cutbacks made during an ongoing budget crunch in Prince George's County, some say laying off Karl Berntson could end up being among the more costly. That's because the aim of his former job -- energy manager -- was to save the county millions of dollars in utility costs," writes The Post's Jonathan Mummolo. "The county will save Berntson's $95,000 annual salary but could be missing out on much more, some members of the County Council say. His dismissal highlights the struggle that localities are having in striking a balance between cutting short-term expenses to stay afloat and pursuing long-term improvements."

In Annapolis, agreement over counties key to final budget deal
Dome on a clear day.JPG"Maryland's House of Delegates on Friday approved a nearly $32 billion spending plan that rejects key provisions of the budget passed last month by the Senate to make local governments pay a greater share of teacher retirement, road construction and other costs," writes The Post's Aaron C. Davis. "The move sets up a confrontation to reconcile the two spending plans in committee before April 12, when the General Assembly adjourns. Most of the battle between the two chambers will center on local governments' responsibility in coming years to help keep the state's $13.2 billion general fund solvent and whether Maryland has an adequate plan to address long-term budget problems.

Republicans excited about Ehrlich, but...
"For Ehrlich to break the race open, he will probably have to find a model for success that differs from other Republicans', writes The Post's Aaron C. Davis. "He doesn't fit the mold of political newcomer that prevailed in November in New Jersey, Massachusetts and, to a lesser degree, Virginia. And unlike other members of a rare class of five former governors well positioned this year to win back their old jobs, Ehrlich's course is more perilous.

O'Malley taps brother for campaign role
"Peter O'Malley is going to work for the reelection campaign of his older brother, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), the campaign announced Friday," The Post's Wagner writes. "The younger O'Malley, who has worked on previous campaigns for his brother, is currently chief of staff to Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith (D). He will carry the title of senior adviser to the O'Malley campaign this year."

Quotables

Thumbnail image for Ehrlich family.jpg"If Kendel didn't agree with me politically, we couldn't be married."
-- former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), speaking Saturday morning on WBAL radio, where he and his wife, Kendel, plan to continue their weekly show until July.

O'Malley FB.jpg"Wishing everyone a safe and happy Easter weekend. Before going outside to enjoy this beautiful weather, will you invite five friends to become fans of our Facebook page today?"
-- Gov. Martin O'Malley, in a Facebook posting. As of 6:30 a.m. Monday, O'Malley had 4,522 fans, compared to Ehrlich's 16,906.


The Day Ahead

With just more than a week remaining in the legislative session, here are some key developments expected Monday:

• Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to sign a waiver effectively extending the deadline for the General Assembly to pass a budget until lawmakers adjourn on April 12. The deadline is Monday, April 5, but governors routinely pass extensions to the rule, officials say.
• House and Senate leaders are expected to select members of a budget reconciliation committee, and the group may meet on Monday afternoon for the first time.
• Both chambers plan to meet Monday at 8 p.m. and continue floor debate on bills introduced in the opposite chamber.

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Trust First Click for critical news and analysis you need to navigate Maryland politics. Each weekday, First Click brings you The Agenda, a concise, forward-looking analysis of the day's top development in politics or policy. "News You Should Know" breaks down top stories from across the state. And Look Ahead, Unspun, News Makers, and Week in Review keep you up to speed with power brokers in Annapolis and beyond. Want First Click on the go? Sign up for our free e-mail edition, and get the news delivered to your inbox or mobile device.

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By Aaron C. Davis  |  April 5, 2010; 6:45 AM ET
Categories:  Aaron C. Davis , First Click , John Wagner  
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