Josh Kurtz: Slugfest

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It’s no secret that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) don’t like each other.

That’s OK: when political opponents pretend to be “friends” it’s pretty distasteful and strains credulity, anyway.

But their intense dislike for each other is going to color this entire gubernatorial election, and it’s a pretty safe bet that voters are going to be fed up — and desperately wishing there was another alternative — by the time Election Day rolls around.

Ehrlich insists that his decision to try to win his old job back is not a grudge match. Both men say they will be running on their records and presenting starkly different visions for the future of Maryland.

Don’t believe them.

This will probably be Maryland’s ugliest campaign in modern history. Both candidates are reading from the same playbook: and both plan to win by tearing down the other guy. Expect the negative ads to begin almost immediately; expect the rhetoric to be harsh and personal; expect the winner — no, let’s make that the guy who receives the most votes, because there will be no winners here — to be greatly diminished by the time it’s all over. Expect no voter to be inspired or illuminated.

What a shame.

And what a difference four years makes.

Four years ago, it seemed as if Maryland voters were blessed. In Ehrlich and O’Malley, they had two exciting candidates running for governor. Both were history-makers in their own way. Both were young, handsome men with appealing swaggers, attractive wives and adorable families. Both passed the “would you like to have a beer with this guy?” test with flying colors. And while you wouldn’t call either a centrist, neither was a blindly loyal follower of his party’s orthodoxy, either.

And what a contrast to the gubernatorial contenders of the recent past! Parris Glendening? Ellen Sauerbrey? Some choice — and we were stuck with them not once, but twice. William Donald Schaefer — popular in certain corners, and with a can-do spirit, but in many ways, a self-aggrandizing clown. Harry Hughes? Ran the emotional gamut from A to B. And so on down the line.

But Ehrlich and O’Malley — these guys were exciting and vibrant and exuded vitality and “the future.” It was the football star vs. the rock star. How lucky we were! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, to be truthful, the 2006 campaign for governor wasn’t all that memorable. The two candidates circled around each other but never really seemed to engage. Whether you liked Ehrlich or hated him, you had a sense as the months went by, as you sized up the national political environment and gauged the way it would trickle down to Maryland, that he was doomed. And he was. But he left office with his popularity relatively intact.

As for O’Malley, he took office amid great optimism, at least among Democrats and many independents. But he immediately confronted a plethora of fiscal woes, challenges that required tough and inevitably unpopular choices. Whether you think O’Malley handled these crises with aplomb or has made a series of missteps, the recession has taken its toll on his standing with the voters. It’s hard not to argue that O’Malley hasn’t lost a lot of his spark.

Meanwhile, Ehrlich has run a kind of government-in-waiting from a glittering office building in downtown Baltimore, surrounding himself with his “boys” and staying in the public eye with his weekly radio show, firing spitballs at O’Malley the whole time.

Ehrlich was already a little whiny as governor, especially when it came to dealing with the heavy Democratic majorities in the legislature (and the leading newspapers in the state, the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post). He seemed more so in exile. And when Democrats methodically took control of every lever of the federal government, Ehrlich retreated into predictable partisan rhetoric.

O’Malley has, almost unavoidably, become more partisan himself. That’s inevitable for any beleaguered Democrat in Maryland: When you gird for a close re-election fight, you must lock in the loyalty of your most reliable supporters. So for O’Malley, that means keeping close to unions, environmentalists, social liberals and civil rights groups.

Which more or less brings us to today, and the rematch a lot of people were expecting — and hoping for.

Why?

Rematches, in sports and in politics, can be exciting. This one won’t be. There will be finger pointing and name calling, and assigning of blame.

“You wrecked the economy!”

“You did!”

“You raised fees!”

“You raised taxes!”

“You raised tuition!”

“You raised spending!”

“Too much government!”

“Too little compassion!”

“You’re going to raise taxes again!”

By the time it’s all over, Ehrlich and O’Malley will be like punch-drunk fighters at the end of a particularly brutal heavyweight championship bout. But it’s the voters who will be screaming for blood. The voters will think they’re both jerks, and we’ll all be the poorer for it.

And P.S. If voters think both are jerks, in a heavily Democratic state, chances are O’Malley wins.

Josh Kurtz is a managing editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.