A Light-as-Air Image Veils Kendel Ehrlich's Political Heft
Sunday, June 26, 2005
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had just settled into a midweek board meeting when first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich burst into the room with a white-frosted cake in her arms and son Joshua strapped to her chest in a BabyBjorn.
The governor announced that it was Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's birthday and that the Ehrlichs wanted to surprise him with a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday." After a few moments of laughter and applause, Kendel Ehrlich gave her husband a June Cleaver wink and then leaned in and kissed his cheek.
"All right, honey," she told the governor as TV cameras rolled, "Have a good day at work."
Twenty years ago, Kendel Ehrlich was a hard-driving public defender who built a reputation for toughness by striding confidently into the state penitentiary in Jessup to meet clients, ignoring catcalls from two tiers of convicts.
These days, Ehrlich, 43, is cheerfully crisscrossing Maryland as the upbeat antidote to her bare-knuckled husband, who has spent much of his first term trading blows with the state's Democratic establishment and battling the press corps.
She has flashed her dazzling smile at the Miss USA pageant in Baltimore and stood at the governor's side in state tourism commercials, presenting what University of Maryland politics professor James G. Gimpel called "a little bit of a softer touch."
She capped a recent tour of the 54-room governor's mansion in Annapolis by reaching into a kitchen cabinet to produce a freezer bag filled with crunchy chocolate clusters, declaring, "These are from my very own cookie recipe!"
Still, most Maryland audiences are seeing only one side of Kendel Ehrlich, a woman who can still marshal the kind of sizzling retort that sets her husband's political foes on their heels. She famously vowed to shoot pop diva Britney Spears for being a bad influence on teenagers and more recently told a Republican crowd in Ocean City that she wanted to punish the press, as she would her own children, for being liars.
If there are two sharply contrasting approaches to being first lady -- as presented, say, by Laura Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- many believe that Kendel Ehrlich has taken cues from both. Democrats, especially, say she is presented publicly in much the same manner as Bush but actually engages in the workaday life of the administration in ways similar to Clinton.
That's not just because Kendel Ehrlich was mentioned, fleetingly, as a potential candidate for the U.S. Senate seat that will open in 2007. In ways largely unseen, documents show, she has played a very active role in her husband's administration, sounding in on such key decisions as appointments and policy initiatives.
"She's not just baking cookies," said state Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld (D-Montgomery), who tussled with the first lady over legislation during the General Assembly session that concluded in April. "There's a lot of evidence, tangible evidence, to demonstrate that she is very much involved."
Unshakable From Start
Long before Kendel Sibiski met her husband, then a young Republican delegate from Arbutus, Md., she had a certain outer toughness. Her first boss out of law school, then-Anne Arundel County Public Defender Alan Friedman, described her as someone who never shrank from challenging cases and who found gallows humor the best remedy for the courtroom's darker moments.