A Politician Who Thinks Like a Linebacker

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The governor had dropped by to teach a rhetoric class. It was mere weeks before Election Day, and Bob Ehrlich held forth in a small auditorium at Towson University, sleeves rolled up and a microphone in hand.

He asked the students to imagine themselves as political consultants. Their hypothetical candidate was a Republican governor. "Very handsome, by the way," he joked, flashing a smile. "Two beautiful children. Beautiful wife."

But there were problems, Ehrlich admitted: The state tilts heavily Democratic. The governor has been fighting with the legislature. Newspaper editors are not always in his corner. "When you are an incumbent," he added, "the election is generally about you ."

This much he knows as he faces the race of his political life.

After 20 years of pulling out victories at the ballot box -- young and on the rise in the state House and in Congress before his election as governor at age 44 -- Ehrlich is now trailing his opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), in an array of polls.

But Ehrlich has come from behind before. This is the 16th contest of his political career. He has never lost.

If he clinches it, his political profile will change markedly, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. As a two-time Republican victor in a predominantly Democratic state, "he will emerge as a figure in national Republican politics," Crenson said.

If Ehrlich loses, he will be thrust out of elective office for the first time since he was 28.

How it turns out will depend, in part, on how voters view Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- a college linebacker-turned-lawyer who rose from working-class roots to make history in 2002 as the first Republican governor in Maryland in more than a generation.

Even many of his critics say the 48-year-old governor is likable -- affable and unpretentious, the kind of guy who slaps backs, cracks jokes, talks sports. He has a strong streak of the Everyman.

But they also say the competitive edge that has helped him win football games and political campaigns has sometimes worked against him during his four years as governor.

"To understand Bob, you have to go back to his days of playing sandlot football," said D. Bruce Poole, a Democratic friend and former House majority leader who supports Ehrlich. "He is competitive. He's a linebacker in mentality. He has always been able to take a hit and return it with that much more."

Emerging as the Republican Voice

It was another weekend on the campaign trail, and Bob Ehrlich was headed to a corn roast in Reisterstown. The rain had stopped, finally. He made his entrance behind a goat named Tootsie who was wearing an Ehrlich sticker on her hindquarters.

The crowd parted and cheered, opening the way for the telegenic governor, who pumped hands and patted backs all the way to a makeshift stage. There, inside a hay barn, one of the hosts introduced him as "the best governor Maryland has ever had."

Square-jawed and lean, in a red polo shirt, Ehrlich smiled broadly as he looked out on the crowd of 300. This was a fundraiser in the county where Ehrlich started his political life.

With both hands in the air -- his gestures large and emphatic, his wife beaming beside him -- he made a few jokes, then narrowed in: The Democrats are the problem, he said, especially House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert).

"Raise your hand if you want Mike Miller and Mike Busch to run Maryland politics for the next four years," he boomed.

"Booooo!" the crowd shouted. "Boooo!"

"It's like rooting for the Broncos," the governor scoffed to this crowd of Ravens faithful.

Just five more Republicans in the state Senate, he said, could change the legislature. "I need five new senators to stop Mike Miller from running over you for four years," he thundered.

The crowd roared.

The idea of greatly increasing the Republican presence in either body is a long shot, but Ehrlich has clearly emerged as the state party's voice. The governor has made other Republicans feel relevant politically, said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert). Before, he added, "we were reduced to rhetorical bomb-throwing. . . . We were ignored."

The corn roast went so well that Ehrlich skipped the next event -- his wife went in his place -- and posed for photographs, smile after smile after still-perfect smile, until it seemed that few people had been missed.

This was Bob Ehrlich in his home base in Baltimore County -- among political kin, a few of them from far enough back to remember how he started out.

The son of a car salesman, Ehrlich grew up as an only child in a rowhouse in Arbutus in Baltimore County. With a gift for athletics -- and the help of his father's boss -- he landed a scholarship to the exclusive Gilman prep school in Baltimore.

It was a world unlike his own, and Ehrlich remembers having "a chip on my shoulder" at first. But he became a standout athlete, playing three sports, and with the help of the headmaster went on to Princeton, where he was a linebacker and team co-captain.

Ehrlich turned to politics in 1986, after law school at Wake Forest University. He had practiced three years, in a silk-stocking law firm in Baltimore -- Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver -- when he decided to make a run for the state House.

Few thought he could win. But he did. Twice.

Those years, he said recently, were "the happiest of my life."

Several senior Democrats brought him along. "They taught me how to be a legislator," he recalled. "They made me part of the group. They let me in the backroom. They had me handle bills on the floor, which was very rare for Republicans."

The political mood had shifted when Ehrlich was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He won in 1994, during the heady days of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution. For the first time, he was part of the majority.

But when he returned to Annapolis as governor, he was a Republican in a Democratic state -- in a more partisan atmosphere. Although he tried to forge relationships with lawmakers over basketball games and evenings watching sports at the governor's mansion, he said, it did not work.

On issues such as slot machines and medical malpractice, he did not find enough allies.

"Coming back, I mistakenly thought I could go home again -- and you cannot," he reflected in an interview. "It was the biggest surprise of my four years, the biggest disappointment."

A Candidate Who Hates to Lose

His morning coffee is iced. It is 9:30 on a rainy Friday, still early for Ehrlich, an admitted night owl who usually doesn't go to sleep until 2 to 3 a.m. Today he started earlier than usual, making football picks on "The Junkies," a popular morning radio show on WJFK (106.7 FM). He has two more losses than wins for the season, but he defends his record. "It's not just the winners; it's the point spreads," he says. "It's easy to pick winners. This is a science."

The athletics that so defined Ehrlich in his youth are still part of his adult life. He reaches for sports metaphors in his speech; he asks about game scores on the campaign trail. For much of his term, he has played golf frequently, even improving his handicap from 10.6 to 8.3. But his aides say he has been too busy to hit the links during the past year.

For nearly four years, Ehrlich has lived in the 54-room governor's mansion in Annapolis with his wife, Kendel, a lawyer and cable television host, and sons, Drew, 7, and Josh, 2. Toys are piled near a side door. Halloween decorations are everywhere, including a giant inflatable pumpkin in the landscaped yard.

It is a big change from the Timonium townhouse they lived in before.

Thinking over his public life, Ehrlich clearly tries to set himself apart from the tactical side of politics that many see as one of his defining characteristics.

"I really like the job," he said. "Politics? I think we're pretty good at it. But it's not my favorite part of this process. My favorite part is clearly getting in front of crowds and making my case."

He talks about how much he enjoyed his two televised debates against O'Malley. "I like to compete," he says. He came to the debate armed with numbers, which he ticked off methodically. He tried to strike a tone of candor, and at one point answered his opponent with: "I don't know what all of that means, I gotta tell you."

His hard-nosed determination shows up even in small ways, friends say. On Capitol Hill, one lawmaker recalls, congressmen sometimes played games of matching quarters -- heads or tails -- during idle time in the cloakroom. Ehrlich "hated to lose, even if it was 25 cents," chuckled Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), a friend who recalls teasing him about it.

But Ehrlich's quest to win, his critics say, has hindered his ability to get programs passed. When he was elected, Ehrlich promised to work with lawmakers beyond party lines. He started by making bipartisan Cabinet appointments; about 40 percent of his Cabinet secretaries have been Democrats.

Still, the governor has often locked into battle with legislators.

Ehrlich had vowed to bring legalized slots to Maryland. After four efforts, there are still no slots. Twice, Ehrlich called special legislative sessions only to veto the bills they produced. On more than 20 issues -- including minimum wage, health benefits at Wal-Mart and election law changes -- the legislature overrode his vetoes.

House Speaker Busch, a close friend when they both served in the state House, has clashed with him often. Ehrlich "ran for office as a consensus builder and compromiser, but he did not govern that way," Busch argued. If he had, he said, "I think he would be a much more formidable candidate today."

In Busch's view, Ehrlich was changed by the divisive politics of Capitol Hill during the Gingrich era.

John Kane, chairman of the state Republican Party, said that the real problem was the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which often blocked Ehrlich's proposals. "They like monopoly," Kane said.

Senate President Miller said the governor should have worked harder at gaining the support of lawmakers and learning the details of policies and proposals. He called Ehrlich "a ribbon-cutter, a golfer, a show horse."

"I see an absence of work ethic on his part, and it's frustrating," he said.

In campaigns, Ehrlich's competitiveness can get mean-spirited, his opponents contend.

Last year, one of Ehrlich's aides, Joseph Steffen, dubbed "the Prince of Darkness," was fired after boasting on the Internet that he had orchestrated a whisper campaign about O'Malley's private life. Ehrlich said he had nothing to do with the incident, which he now waves off as overblown.

Old foes are skeptical. In a 1996 campaign for U.S. Congress, a leaflet was circulated describing Ehrlich's opponent as a "homewrecker" while calling Ehrlich "a family man in the truest sense of the word." Ehrlich has denied any dirty campaigning. But Connie DeJuliis, the opponent, said he did not deny involvement when she confronted him at the time.

"You cross the line when you attack people personally, and that's what Bob Ehrlich does," DeJuliis said. "It's not supposed to be winning at all costs."

'Never Answer a General Question'

At Towson University, Ehrlich shifted from talking political strategy and addressed the class directly.

"Raise your hand if you're pro-choice on abortion," he said.

Hands shot up.

"Raise your hand if you're pro-life," he went on.

More hands.

"Never answer that question!" he boomed. "You're all wrong."

"I didn't define any terms," he said. "I didn't ask how you felt about partial birth abortion or judicial bypass or parental consent or Medicaid funding or stem cell embryonic research."

The students listened closely.

"Never answer a general question. You'll get into trouble."

He tried again. "Who's against capital punishment?"

Ehrlich surveyed the room: No hands.

The governor smiled.

A moderate Republican, Ehrlich carefully parses his positions on many issues. He supports abortion rights, for example, but with limits: no partial birth abortions, no federal funding. He runs conservative on fiscal issues but has supported new taxes or fees on vehicle registration, sewage and property. He favors the death penalty but has granted many pardons and commutations.

"It's a way to try to hold on to his Republican base while appealing to a broader Democratic audience," said Crenson of Johns Hopkins.

Ehrlich has learned to be wary of labels.

"Make your questioner define the terms," he told the Towson students. "And once you do, guess what? You can give opinions for the rest of the day, but you can give opinions as a result of what you actually believe and not the territory the questioner wanted to capture you in."

Precisely how all of this will play on Election Day is the great unknown. A poll published Sunday by The Washington Post showed a majority of likely voters in Maryland thought that Ehrlich had done a good job as governor. Even so, he lagged 10 percentage points behind O'Malley, which analysts say reflects a national climate that is tough on Republicans.

Ehrlich's aides say the poll is at odds with their results -- and, in an interview, the governor said he has seen many signs of Election-Day promise on the campaign trail.

"If you're not an optimist," he told the class in Towson, "this is probably not your profession."

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