By Chris Yakaitis and David J. Silverman, Capital News Service
BALTIMORE- As Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich conceded defeat Wednesday, Governor-elect Martin O'Malley promised to get to work immediately on next year's state budget and said he would make more funds for education one of his new administration's priorities.
Speaking to a packed news conference at Baltimore's City Hall, an exhausted-looking O'Malley also promised to reach out across party lines as he fills out his administration and governs for the next four years.
"We are going to do our very best... to recruit the most professional and committed people we can," he said. "We're going to do this regardless of party, but conscious of the fact that we also want a cabinet and a government that reflects our greatest strength as a people, which is our diversity, and the diversity of families involved in Maryland politics."
But, O'Malley indicated there would be no wholesale firing of political appointees from the Ehrlich administration, in an apparent effort to contrast his administration with that of Ehrlich, who drew heavy criticism during his first years in office for seeking to identify and fire Democrats.
"I am going to go after professionalism, and we're going to recruit the most professional people we can find," O'Malley said, drawing applause from his supporters.
Accompanied by his wife, Catherine Curran O'Malley, a Baltimore judge, and by his running mate, Prince Georges County Delegate Anthony Brown, O'Malley thanked the people of Baltimore for supporting him for seven years as the city's mayor and in his first run for statewide office.
"They have never ever let me down," he said, waxing poetic about the city before preparing to relocate to Annapolis. "There's been a lot of emotional moments over these last 24 hours, right? But certainly one of the most emotional ones was when I was visiting polling places...and seeing my neighbors lining up in the rain, with resolve on their faces and hope in their eyes."
Appearing relaxed in a dark suit but no tie, O'Malley thanked the "army of people" on his campaign who helped him take roughly half of the vote in Baltimore County, where Ehrlich had secured a large majority in the 2002 election. He also thanked his wife and children, and joked that his "100 hour plan" differed widely from the one proposed by Nancy Pelosi, a native of Baltimore's Little Italy who is the speaker-in-waiting in the new Democratic House of Representatives.
"Hours one through 65 is sleep," he said. "Sixty-six through 100 is spending time with Katie, William and Grace and Tara and Jack" - his wide and four children.
A few hours earlier, Ehrlich publicly conceded defeat in a brief statement outside the governor's mansion in Annapolis. Dressed in khaki pants and a Maryland basketball jacket as he stood beside his running mate, Kristen Cox, Ehrlich said that he had called O'Malley earlier in the morning to congratulate him on his victory.
Absorbing his first electoral defeat in politics, the 48-year-old Ehrlich said his administration had kept its promises and met its commitments. "One thing for sure, the next administration will inherit a state in very good shape," he said to applause from many of his supporters lined up on the grass.
According to unofficial results posted on the Maryland State Board of Elections Web site, O'Malley topped Ehrlich by more than seven percentage points, or 119,134 votes.
Even so, the concession came as a surprise to many since around 150,000 absentee ballots were still hanging in the balance. The ballots, which Ehrlich urged his supporters to fill out, are not opened until Thursday.
During his election night party in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Ehrlich vowed to not give up until all of the absentee ballots were counted. But later in the morning, he said he had decided that while the absentees "may have cut the margin," they would "probably not get us where we wanted to be in the end."
About 69,000 absentee ballots were filled out by Democrats while nearly 65,000 were completed by Republicans, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Ehrlich did not address his plans for the future or discuss any of the reasons for his defeat. Nor did he field questions from reporters following the appearance.
He thanked his staff and the people of Maryland for his career in politics, which also included stints in the Maryland House of Delegates and U.S. House of Representatives.
"I've had the ride of my life," he said. "I just cannot find the words to thank the absolute love shown to me over the past 20 years."
At City Hall, O'Malley said he was grateful for Ehrlich's call.
"I do appreciate his reaching out and his congratulations and I want to promise all of the people who did not vote for the O'Malley-Brown team... that we are going to work just as hard in your best interest as we will for the people who voted for us," O'Malley said. "The campaign's over, but the governing will begin. And we need everybody, Democrats, Republicans and independents. We are really humbled and honored."
On the subject of education, a focal point of his campaign, O'Malley said he would fully fund the Thornton plan and school construction budgets, work to make college tuitions more affordable and develop better partnerships between the state Board of Education and local school boards. O'Malley said he promised to bring the same consensus-building and idea-driven leadership to Annapolis that he pursued as Baltimore's mayor. "I consider myself a 'pragmacrat,'" he said, echoing statements made on the campaign trail. "As long as it works, and it's good for everybody, then we should pursue it."