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November 25, 2002

Community Essay

By Tyson King-Meadows, Visiting Assistant Professor, Political Science

Contemporary elections are more often about what citizens do not hear than partisanship. When asked by a correspondent to reflect on why Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost to Robert Ehrlich, Congressman Elijah Cummings (CD-7) perhaps summed it up best: the Democrats failed to effectively get their message out to voters. During Ehrlich's victory speech, he presented a different spin to why KKT lost: the number of white and black Democrats in his electoral coalition, and their physical presence at his victory party. Strangely, both Ehrlich and Cummings were right: KKT failed to get the appropriate messages to the voters.

Ehrlich's choice of Michael S. Steele as the Lt. Gov.-nominee signaled (for many blacks) a real opportunity to diversify the character and content of Maryland's leadership. Many black Democrats saw a vote for Ehrlich-Steele as both an explicit indictment on the exclusionary practices of the Glendening Administration and the KKT campaign, and their collective inability or unwillingness to forcefully address critical issues of concern.

Of course issues cross party and racial lines, and KKT was consistently hammered for the current administration's failure to address those issues. Ehrlich's campaign message mirrored that of another Republican, Ronald Reagan, when he debated President Jimmy Carter: Are you better off today then you were four years ago? For many Marylanders, Tuesday was a "referendum" on the success of Glendening's eight years in office, made increasingly possible because KKT never effectively distanced herself from the administration's failures. Nor did KKT adequately convince voters of two things:

1) whatever successes were made during the previous eight years could be improved upon because of her unique vision and style; and

2) whatever failures were made would be avoided because of her unique programmatic, fiscal and administrative plans. Her inability to present a clear and concise message to disgruntled voters made it possible for Ehrlich to encapsulate desire for a directional shift and executive leadership in one word - "change."

For many Ehrlich supporters, KKT represented a failed approach to governance - a path riddled with fiscal thorns and broken programmatic promises - but one the Democratic candidate (and sitting Lt. Gov) could potentially encourage citizens to take once again. By invoking the slogan "Time for a Change," Ehrlich successfully tapped into citizen aversion to narrow historic choices, particularly when such paths have been proven ineffective and when leaders display visionary inertia. As such, the enormity of the budget deficit and the impending necessary cuts in programs revealed the weaknesses in Glendening-KKT's fiscal strategy.

By the time KKT presented her fiscal strategy, the damage had already been done to citizen morale. Many likely voters thus became tuned into the chorus of "Change" and turned off to being persuaded by KKT. Unlikely voters also became tuned into the chorus, and wondered aloud what would 12 years of such leadership produce that was not already apparent; and questionable. Relatedly, claims of corruption and administrative mismanagement only strengthened skepticism about the executive's willingness to protect and promote citizen interests above interest group politics and uncontrolled delegation of responsibilities.

On the other hand, for KKT, the issues were clear and the necessary direction of Maryland clearer. Change for the sake of change held no intrinsic value. The value of change rested in its ability to be guided in order to reshape the social order and address the needs of communities. In this regard, the philosophies underlying Ehrlich's plans for economic development, funding for education, and balancing the state budget could actually fail to address larger community needs in their implementation.

For example, Ehrlich's plan to raise funds through gambling was deemed short sighted given its faith that citizen patronage would continue (if not grow) in targeted establishments. If not, revenue shortfalls would necessitate the very deep cuts in programs that short-term fiscal solutions allowed Annapolis and Maryland citizens to avoid. Also, economic development could raise revenues and morale in the short-term, but would be offset by damages to Maryland's ecological system, its overall environmental health, and certain business sectors. The associated costs would thus be paid in increased expenditures related to health care costs, social service programs and potential higher prices for commodities and luxury items as the remaining businesses passed on their new economic burdens to consumers.

Ehrlich's strong campaign and KKT's weak campaign prevented the latter from fully triangulating these issues, her strategy and the voters. This became particularly true as news coverage of the area sniper moved the gubernatorial campaign slightly off the front pages of local newspapers as KKT's campaign began to build momentum. With neither a consistent believable message nor momentum, KKT's gubernatorial campaign strategy was soon boxed into the politics of avoiding blame. It was a box from which no political Houdini could escape unscarred.

In the end, Ehrlich's win was not surprising. And given the changing demographic character and policy preferences of Maryland county residents, where KKT lost decisively to Ehrlich was neither a surprise What is more surprising perhaps is that it took Maryland Republicans more than 30 years to recapture the governor's mansion and to defeat the Democratic speaker of the House. The nationwide rumbles have long indicated that Democrats often fail to adapt to America's changing electorate.

Like the rest of America, on November 5, Maryland voters suggested that a new untested plan was better than an old failed plan.

King-Meadows' essay originally appeared in The Retriever Weekly.

All members of the UMBC community are invited to contribute community essays to Insights. Please send ideas to .

Posted by dwinds1 at November 25, 2002 12:00 AM