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Fraser Smith: Riding the wave to re-election

Before the recent gubernatorial campaign began in earnest, the O’Malley team did a man-in-the-street sampling of feelings about former governor Bob Ehrlich’s controversial way of supporting state government.

The fees he imposed as governor for various services weren’t taxes, he insisted.

But what did the people think?

Almost as a YouTube exercise, they asked people: Is a fee a tax?

In one memorable response, a woman said, “If it comes out of my pocket, it’s a tax.”

The O’Malley folks decided they were on to something. This and similar comments were plugged into a campaign commercial.

At some level, the controversy resonated against the national mood of the 2010 election: Americans think politicians are always trying to put one over on us. The tax vs. fee question seemed like a case in point.

Ehrlich had a counter-argument: Who knows what government does with your money? With a fee, you know what you’re getting. “Programs” are the enemy. “Community” is out the window.

That answer fit well with the Republicans’ perennial attack on tax-and-spend Democrats.

The O’Malley forces said, in effect, bring it on.

“We were going to take it to him. We were surprised he couldn’t counter-punch,” one of the governor’s campaign directors said.

The campaign was achieving one of its early goals — turning Ehrlich into an incumbent with a record, maybe the worst thing you could be amid the prevailing mood of anger and distrust in 2010.

Running against a mood

From the start, the O’Malley campaign saw “the mood of the country” as its opponent. The portent of a “wave election” could not be discounted even in deep blue Maryland.

The anger was here, campaign pollsters were warning. Don’t imagine your state is immune.

O’Malley also had to make himself an exception, someone who would level with you even if you didn’t like it.

When Ehrlich and others guaranteed that O’Malley would raise taxes in a second term, the incumbent governor refused to take that option off the table. If he was going to be consistent, if he was going to charge Ehrlich with pulling a fast one on the fees vs. taxes issue, he wanted to avoid a pledge that voters wouldn’t believe.

He also knew it would have been irresponsible, given the state’s deficit of $2 billion — give or take.

Better to say, “Yes, I raised taxes [a penny or 20 percent on the sales tax in 2007], but we’re better off than many states and we’ll recover faster [fiscally] when the recession ends.”

O’Malley won by 14 percentage points — well above his 2008 margin of victory — even as Republicans made gains across the state in local elections. He won by about 1,300 votes in Baltimore County, a key battleground. Ehrlich had won there easily four years earlier.

Hanging 10

The tax vs. fee gambit was a more legitimate thrust than the effort to paint Ehrlich as a lobbyist, responsible in some nefarious way with the BP oil spill. O’Malley campaign officials concede this formulation was a real stretch.

Still, they say it was part of a campaign to paint their opponent as out of touch with Marylanders. Subsequent reports that Ehrlich had been making $750,000 a year had high roller written all over it — not the best appeal to voters feeling scorched by Wall Street.

In the end, though, the O’Malley forces believe they won the old-fashioned way. They just outworked the other side.

“There was a wave,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, one of the campaign’s practiced strategists and organizers, “but you have to put your paddle in the water. You can’t ride the wave if you’re not in control of the energy.”

The Ehrlich campaign seemed conflicted about the wave: Was it really there in Maryland? The candidate seemed undecided about that until the end of the campaign.

By then, O’Malley was hanging 10 on the way to a second term.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.