Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won the governorship of Maryland yesterday, prying open the iron grip Democrats have held on the post since Spiro T. Agnew left office and reversing a 36-year losing streak for Republican gubernatorial candidates.
Ehrlich, who ran a campaign fueled by a gregarious personality and a theme of change, beat Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend by a decisive margin, garnering most of his votes from suburban counties where Republicans have done well in the past.
By toppling a Kennedy in a state dominated by Democratic voters, Ehrlich's victory made good on the symbolism of his campaign: that a working-class kid could, against all odds, beat a privileged member of America's most storied political family.
"We meant what we said during the campaign -- that 'time for a change' meant something," Ehrlich said today in announcing that Lieutenant Governor-elect Michael Steele would head his transition team at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Baltimore. "In this case, change means ideas. We believe we have the ideas to take this state in a new direction."
Despite running an aggressive campaign that relentlessly tried to map the philosophical chasm separating her from Ehrlich, Townsend suffered the fate of every Maryland lieutenant governor who has tried for the top job. She was unable to shake the tarnished legacy of her boss of eight years, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who is leaving office with dismal popularity ratings.
Townsend called Ehrlich shortly after 11 p.m. to concede defeat, he said today. "She was very gracious and very nice," Ehrlich said. "We've never had a bad word between us -- personally.
"Unfortunately, this campaign got very ugly, and campaigns happen like that," he added. "But now, we're looking forward, not behind."
Ehrlich also said he has grown offended by questions from people about his victory being a surprise.
"I would hope that the analysts will give us a little credit," he said, noting this his campaign was up against Townsend's $9 million war chest, Kennedy family ties and backing by the state's Democratic establishment. "Nobody forced me out of Congress. It was a tough decision.
"But we knew that if we could become competitive, a lot of the moderates and others would come forth to support our ticket."
In naming Steele as his transition team chair, Ehrlich said: "Michael Steele is my partner. It was not a campaign slogan." He also named longtime staffer and former Maryland economic development chief James Brady to supervise the team's daily operations.
Ehrlich also said Glendening called him today to congratulate him on his victory and offer his help in the transition.
While no promises were made, Ehrlich said the governor wants to talk about steps that can be taken to reduce spending in the eight months remaining in fiscal 2002.
"He was optimistic that we could make real progress with regard to the $418 million we are short this year," Ehrlich said.
In his victory speech about midnight, a beaming Ehrlich greeted supporters with "welcome to history," while holding his 3-year-old son, Drew, who was hamming it up for the audience.
The governor-elect said he had received a congratulatory call from an excited President Bush.
He then struck a serious note during his speech, describing the responsibilities he soon will undertake. "But as we know, power must be held responsibly and successfully or it will be a temporary stay, because that's the nature of democracy in a free society."
Delivering her concession speech just before 11:30 p.m., Townsend thanked her supporters and urged them to join with Ehrlich "in doing what is right for Maryland."
"I hope that with the campaign over, with the charges and countercharges fading away, we will realize that the things that unite us are far more powerful than the things that divide us," she said.
Elsewhere in the state, Democrats held their own. In the Baltimore County executive race, Democrat James T. Smith Jr. beat Republican Douglas B. Riley.
The party made some outright gains, winning two of the nation's most competitive races for the House of Representatives in districts redrawn by Glendening to favor the party. In the 2nd District, Democratic Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger defeated former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.
In the 8th District, state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. bested incumbent U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella.
William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, cruised to re-election as state comptroller, winning a second term by defeating Republican Gene Zarwell by a margin of more than 2-to-1.
Four-term Democratic Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. easily defeated Republican Edwin MacVaugh.
When Ehrlich returns to Annapolis - he served in the House of Delegates for eight years - he will be greeted by a vastly altered General Assembly.
In a significant upset, Democratic House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. lost his Allegany County seat at the polls, although uncounted absentee ballots could change the result. Another senior Assembly member, Democratic state Sen. Walter M. Baker of Cecil County, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, was defeated by Republican E.J. Pipkin.
Meanwhile, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Baltimore last night, where the Ehrlich team gathered, the mood was ecstatic. A crowd of about 2,000 GOP supporters waited for results to come in at a banquet hall, where the Mood Swings Big Band altered rock 'n' roll standards to fit the event, such as "Go, Bobby, Go! Go!" to the tune of "Johnny B. Good."
"Governor-elect Ehrlich will have a government where everyone will have a voice," said Michael S. Steele, Ehrlich's running mate, who took to the podium about 11:45 p.m.
Steele becomes the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland. He is a former party chairman whose likeness appeared on life-size posters throughout African-American neighborhoods in Baltimore yesterday in an effort to enlist black support.
Ehrlich's win elated his backers. "After all this time, it's certainly about time," said Jim Boone, 55, of Dundalk, who attended the victory celebration.
A few blocks away at the Wyndham Hotel, Townsend gave her concession speech. Her daughters wept as they left the stage, as did her avuncular chief of staff, Alan H. Fleischmann, and other aides.
"I think that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend did her very best," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who instantly emerges as one of the strongest Democratic candidates for statewide office. "I did all I could for her."
"What happened was a big disappointment, and we'll wave to look at what happened," said Wayne Rogers, the state Democratic Party chairman. Pointing to the congressional gains, he added: "I don't think this was a rejection of the Democratic Party or [its] beliefs."
Townsend, who made a point of not relying on family connections during the race, quoted her father, Robert F. Kennedy, in defeat. "He said 'The question is not whether change will come, but whether we guide that change in the service of our ideals, and towards social order shaped to the needs of our people,'" she said.
Ehrlich's win means that the legalization of slot machines is sure to gain footing when the legislature meets in January. Ehrlich has promised to rejuvenate Maryland's budget with gambling revenue that he says will be funneled to public schools.
He mentioned other policy initiatives in his victory remarks. "We can clean up the bay, and reform juvenile justice, and fix the budget mess, and fully fund every school, and bring adequate health care to the working poor and disabled. We can only do it if we work together."
Ehrlich gathered most of his support from the fast-growing suburban counties in central Maryland. In Harford County, for example, he won 74.2 percent of the vote, compared with 64.8 percent for Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in 1994, the last governor's race without an incumbent.
The suburban and rural vote was enough to overcome Townsend's huge edge in Baltimore and populous Montgomery and Prince George's counties, known as the "Big Three" for Democratic candidates. Ehrlich gained a lower percentage vote in those three jurisdictions than Sauerbrey did in 1994.
Turnout was moderate to heavy through much of the morning and afternoon, although late afternoon rain might have slowed this year's voting. It appeared on par with numbers from 1998 and 1994, when 61 percent of registered voters went to the polls.
The governor's race featured a compelling story line about a local boy made good squaring off against a Kennedy, and so received national and international media attention. Until voting began, it was considered one of the closest contests in the country.
Townsend, 51, is the eldest daughter of Kennedy and a two-term lieutenant governor who was trying to succeed the unpopular Glendening.
Ehrlich, 44, a four-term congressman from Timonium, was vying to become the state's first Republican governor since Spiro T. Agnew was elected in 1966. The only child of a car salesman and a legal secretary, Ehrlich grew up in an Arbutus rowhouse and attended prestigious private schools thanks in large part to his football skills.
In some ways, the election was as much a referendum on the Glendening-Townsend administration as it was an endorsement of Ehrlich's vision - making his "It's time for a change" slogan particularly resonant.
"Even though I'm a registered Democrat, I voted for Ehrlich," said Donald A. Henricks, 69, of Severna Park. "We're getting too far in the hole with the state budget. I hope that he can straighten it out. I'm afraid with Townsend, she'd raise taxes."
Townsend began her campaign by attempting to expand her appeal beyond traditional Democratic constituencies. She chose a former Republican as a running mate, retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, a Naval Academy superintendent, Pacific Fleet commander and member of the state university system's Board of Regents.
But that choice infuriated some African-American political leaders. Once polls showed that the race had tightened, Townsend spent much of the campaign trying to soothe wounds that never fully healed.
Ehrlich packaged himself as a moderate, and effectively neutralized Townsend on several critical issues. He, like his opponent, backed a plan approved by the legislature to increase education funding by $1.3 billion. But Townsend also used the tactic, coming out in favor of building the Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery, a priority for voters in the state's most populous county.
In the end, the race was as much about personality and broad themes as it was about policy.
Townsend portrayed herself as the big-hearted candidate with a passion for public service and a serious commitment to helping the state's neediest residents meet - in the words of a frequently mocked and eventually discarded campaign slogan - their "indispensable destiny."
Her platform included a plan for affordable prescription drugs for senior citizens, increased access to health insurance, and more money for education.
"She does have a track record of accomplishing things, even though she had some pitfalls," said Kevin Medley, 39, a mental health consultant who lives in West Baltimore and voted for Townsend. Medley said he met Townsend when she visited his son's school. "She seemed genuine in what she was saying. You could tell."
Ehrlich cast himself as a vehicle for change, the man whose thrifty values and innate leadership would restore order to the state's fiscal books, burdened by a $1.7 billion budget shortfall.
"He crystallized the feeling out there that after eight years, something had to be changed," said Michael W. Burns, a former delegate and unsuccessful GOP candidate for state's attorney in Anne Arundel County. "It brought out a lot of people and it carried down. He really tapped in."
Because of the budget shortfall, neither Townsend nor Ehrlich could legitimately promise extensive new programs, although both made a series of appeals to shore up support from interest groups. Townsend, for example, pledged $30 million in drug-treatment funds for Baltimore over the next four years. Ehrlich vowed tax breaks and a retirement home for veterans.
But the challenges ahead were apparent even in Ehrlich's victory remarks. "Have fun tonight," he told the crowd. "Tomorrow, the real work of government begins."
In an interview later, Ehrlich pledged to build coalitions and include Democrats in his administration. "I want talent," he said. "I don't care what it looks like, I just want talent."
He said he would work closely with O'Malley, adding that Baltimore faces "profound problems, and we will try to help."
Glendening, who is chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, issued a statement last night saying the transition would be smooth.
"My congratulations go out to congressman Ehrlich, his wife Kendel and their entire family following the hard fought race," the statement said. "We are committed to full and complete cooperation during the transition and will work closely with the governor elect to assure a smooth and effective process."
During the campaign, Townsend sought to portray Ehrlich as an "extremist" whose politics did not match those of most Marylanders. She lambasted his votes to abolish the U.S. Department of Education and to rescind a federal ban on assault weapons.
Neither candidate ran a textbook campaign.
Townsend relied heavily on a 32-page "blueprint" of what she would do if elected, a bland document that contains virtually no numbers and was read by few voters. When she slipped in the polls, she resisted calls to shake up her staff, staying with loyal aides.
Ehrlich made significant missteps, in particular calling for the review of some of the state's tough gun laws when gun-control was barely a campaign issue. A few weeks later, the sniper shootings began, giving Townsend an opportunity to contrast her anti-gun stance with Ehrlich's record.
As the race stayed close, national attention intensified, with big-league players arriving to solidify support.
Former President Bill Clinton stopped in Maryland twice to campaign for Townsend, and Al Gore also swept in.
But Republicans had plenty of firepower of their own. President Bush helped Ehrlich raise $1.8 million in a single event - setting a state record. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani came this week for a final, rousing rally.
Sun staff writers Greg Garland, Athima Chansanchai, Andrea F. Siegel, Howard Libit and Tim Craig contributed to this article.