Del. James F. Ports Jr. has repeatedly said he would do anything to help Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s gubernatorial run, but now the Ehrlich campaign is distancing itself from Ports' bid to win a seat on the Baltimore County Council.
Proving the point, Ehrlich will appear as the featured guest at a fund-raiser Councilman Wayne M. Skinner is holding next month in Ports' home turf of Perry Hall.
Part of Ehrlich's strategy in the difficult quest to be elected governor as a Republican is to avoid potentially divisive party primaries.
Ports said repeatedly this spring that he was in discussions with Ehrlich's campaign and would do anything -- including not running for office at all -- to help the congressman win.
But Ports' announcement two weeks ago that he would run for the County Council's 5th District seat pitted him against Skinner in what shows signs of being a bitter primary fight.
Skinner said yesterday that Ports' statements before the announcement gave the impression that he was acting with Ehrlich's consent.
"He said something to the effect that he will do anything to further Ehrlich's campaign, then he announces for County Council. It almost implied Bob Ehrlich wants him to run for County Council," Skinner said.
Ehrlich and Ports did discuss the delegate's electoral future, said R. Karl Aumann, district director for Ehrlich's congressional office, but Ehrlich did not encourage him to run for County Council.
"There is no endorsement," Aumann said. "Bob likes both of these guys an awful lot. He's been a supporter of Jim, and he's been a supporter of Wayne, and both have been supporters of Bob."
Ports said he is not bothered by Ehrlich's neutrality or his appearance at Skinner's fund-raiser.
"The goal is to make friends and no enemies. I understand how a campaign works," Ports said. "He has to do what he has to do, publicly."
Before announcing, Ports considered running for a variety of offices: County Council, county executive and Congress.
Skinner and Republican Douglas B. Riley had filed for council and executive, respectively, and former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley was being heavily courted by national Republican leadership to run for Congress.
That left two options with no Republican primary opponent -- running for re-election in the House of Delegates or for the state Senate seat in the Maryland General Assembly. Although Ports has long made clear that he didn't want to return to the House, he entered the party leadership in the Assembly this year as minority whip. And the Senate seat in his district just opened up with the retirement of Democratic Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell.
But family considerations and the advice of constituents who thought he belonged in local government persuaded him to run for council, Ports said.
"Of course [Ehrlich] wanted me to run for the House or Senate, and my answer to that was no," Ports said. "Obviously, I want to do what's going to benefit Bobby Ehrlich, but at the same time, I need to make the decision in the end, and I said I was not going back to the General Assembly. That was not part of the negotiation."
Within that constraint, Ports said, Ehrlich "agreed that as far as it goes for him personally it benefited him the most with me running for the County Council seat."
Ports has continued to emphasize his connection with Ehrlich, even including a quote from the gubernatorial candidate on his campaign brochure.
It reads: "The common thread that binds communities and citizens together is leadership. Jim Ports is a proven leader! He has brought dedication, devotion and integrity to the field of elected office and has inspired countless others to reach for life's greatest achievements. Jim Ports is a true pioneer, teaching others not only through his words, but through his actions."
Ports said he did not specifically say the quote would go on a brochure for his County Council campaign, but "at that point, they knew what I was running for. It was no secret."
But Aumann said Ehrlich provided the quote before Ports announced for the council and was not meant in any way to endorse his candidacy for that post.
"It wasn't given in that context. It was given about Jim Ports when his options were open," Aumann said. "Bob still feels that way about Jim, but I believe that if Councilman Skinner doesn't already have a quote from the congressman, he will, and it will probably be something as laudatory as Jim's."
Skinner said the quote on Ports' brochure seemed designed to imply an endorsement. Although he thought that was inappropriate since Ehrlich isn't endorsing either candidate in the primary, Skinner said he would ask for a similar quote and put it on his literature.