Maryland Governor's Race: What can we learn from Bob Ehrlich's German of the Year award?
An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect spelling of the German word for Germany. It is Deutschland, not Deutchsland.
Forget post-racial. The Maryland governor’s race is reminding us that America might not even be post-ethnic.
For proof, look no further than the debate last week between incumbent Democrat Martin O'Malley and former governor Bob Ehrlich. Following a well-worn polemical path, the two got into a heated exchange over immigration and assimilation.
Under massive pressure to score some points against up-in-the-polls O'Malley, Ehrlich strained to do so on his own migratory credentials. “German of the Year, 1996,” the Republican said.
What? German of whose year?
There are moments that define campaigns, and this definitely wasn't one of them. The "German of the Year" outburst hasn't been dissected and columnized about and repeated on talk shows. And that's too bad. Because if there's one thing that this heavy-on-policy-discussions campaign needs, it's a regionwide discussion about the merits of the "German of the Year" award and its implications for contemporary immigration policy.
The fun starts with a quick fact-check. Ehrlich won the Distinguished Service Award from the German Society of Maryland in 1997, not 1996. It was 13 years ago, so we’ll cut him some slack. “It has been referred to, although not officially, as German Marylander of the Year,” says Theodore Potthast, who was on the committee that selected Ehrlich and now serves as the society’s treasurer.
The society isn’t political, Potthast says, and the award goes to a Marylander of German descent who has “made a contribution to the nation, the state or the community.” Previous winners include the late Loyola University President Rev. Joseph Sellinger, the founder of German Life magazine and former governor William Donald Schaefer.
Germans of the Years Schaefer and Ehrlich share something aside from their ethnic laurels — they both have a knack for stirring debate when it comes to immigration. Six years ago, Schaefer, then the state comptroller, opened a Board of Public Works meeting with a rant about McDonald’s employees who didn’t speak English. The next day, Ehrlich was asked about the remarks on a Baltimore radio station.
“Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, that some folks are teaching in our college campuses and other places, you run into a problem,” Ehrlich said, according to the Baltimore Sun. “There is no such thing as a multicultural society that can sustain itself, in my view, and I think history teaches us this lesson.”
The governor’s remarks drew stinging rebukes from black and Latino leaders, and O’Malley doesn’t hesitate to remind voters about them years later.
The dis on multiculturalism is connected with Ehrlich's chest-beating on the German-of-the-Year distinction. The candidate and former one-term governor trumpets the 13-year-old award to draw attention to his argument about old-time immigration---namely, that its aim was to assimilate foreigners into this strange land. And as the Ehrlich narrative goes, no such glorious social process happens these days, what with all the illegal immigration going on. Both candidates, in fact, are happy to blame the United States’ flawed immigration policy on bipartisan federal ineptitude, although they disagree on state policies.
The former German of the Year delights in bashing Casa de Maryland, a service organization for Latino immigrants based in the Washington suburbs. The organization has received state funding under both Ehrlich and O’Malley, but Ehrlich has lashed out and said the group abandoned its original mission of helping immigrants assimilate.
"If the Casa de Marylands of the world would just follow their original charter,” Ehrlich said during last Monday’s debate. “If they were really about assimilation, recent immigrants into this country, teaching capitalism, democracy, teaching our culture, our singular American culture, economic empowerment, I'd be standing on the rooftops, saying 'Good for you, CASA de Maryland, we'll help you, we'll fund you, we'll assist you. Good for you.'"
Ehrlich then accused Casa de Maryland of printing booklets promoting illegal activity. That’s false, but the booklets do inform illegal immigrants of their rights and of ways to slow down any deportation process.
“We are a pro-immigrant country,” Ehrlich continued. “German of the Year, 1996. Proud of it. Irish,” he said, gesturing towards O’Malley. “Proud of it. We all should be proud of it ... We all came here. We are all immigrants. This is about a singular American culture. Capitalism, equal opportunity -- unlimited opportunity. That’s what we should be engaged in.”
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