By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 11:44 PM
Telling YouTube viewers that he'd found "somebody to help me turn Annapolis around," former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. welcomed Mary D. Kane to his Republican gubernatorial ticket four months ago with a peck on the cheek.
Since then, Kane has carried high hopes for boosting Ehrlich's bid for a return to the governor's mansion.
Best known in statewide circles for her two years as Ehrlich's secretary of state and for her husband's high profile in business and Republican politics, Kane has twice waged tough election campaigns of her own - and can also boast an inspiring personal biography, rising from working-class roots and more than a decade as a full-time mother to a successful career in law, politics and business.
Observers have seen Kane as helping Ehrlich with key demographic weaknesses - particularly among women, who, according to polls, heavily favor Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), and by boosting his prospects in Kane's home of Montgomery County.
Constance A. Morella, a Republican who represented the county in Congress for nine terms, said Kane can attract Montgomery's overwhelmingly Democratic voters. "She's moderate," Morella said. "That's what people want. And she's a lawyer, she's a mother; she's got great people skills."
But some observers question whether Ehrlich has done enough to introduce Kane, 48, to the electorate.
Keith Haller, an independent pollster with Bethesda-based Potomac Inc., agrees that Kane's moderate image is generally well tuned to the county and the state electorate at large but said that Kane has been "next to invisible" even by the standards of gubernatorial running mates.
Mary Deely was raised in Wilmington, Del., the daughter of working-class Irish immigrants: Ed, who worked as a pipefitter in DuPont's Chambers Works, and Ann, a seamstress in the valet shop at Wilmington's Hotel du Pont.
She attended parochial schools until leaving Wilmington to study business at Mount St. Mary's University. At the Catholic school in the Catoctin Mountains, she was active in organizing class activities and was a regular at Sunday evening Mass.
"A lot of us were raised in Democratic families growing up," said Joanne McShalley, a college friend who lives in Parkville, Md., and remains close to Kane. "That's changed a lot."
Kane's political interests developed early. The day after graduation, she began work as a receptionist in then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s Capitol Hill offices, later working in the offices of the American Trucking Association. About that time, her growing interest in politics met a new consciousness as a business-oriented conservative, sparked in part by a 1987 meeting with President Ronald Reagan. But her political ambitions were put on hold.
At college, Mary Deely had met John M. Kane, whose father owned a Baltimore-based moving company. They married not long after leaving Mount St. Mary's, settled in Potomac and had three children. Mary Kane raised them full time for the next 10 years while her husband took over the family business, turning it into the largest specialty commercial mover in the country. He also rose to prominent positions in the Washington business community and in Maryland's Republican Party, becoming chairman in 2002.
Kane's husband became an issue over the summer, when her ascension to running mate refreshed reports about a lawsuit filed against the Kane Co. in 2007. Last year, federal prosecutors joined the suit, which alleges the company conspired to pay workers substandard wages on government contracts.
Mary Kane, who sat on the company's board for several years before joining the Ehrlich administration, said she has no knowledge of the suit's allegations and had no role in the company's operations.
"I don't mess with his business," she said. "He doesn't mess with mine."
Kane proved her mettle early as she reentered professional life - first, by putting herself through law school at Catholic University, where she was one of the oldest students in her class and a rare mother.
Not long after graduating, Kane made energetic bids to represent voters in Montgomery County's western reaches. Her first came in 2000, after longtime council member Betty Ann Krahnke stepped down because of health problems, prompting a rare special election.
Then a criminal defense attorney, Kane entered the race and built an organizational and financial advantage, but Howard A. Denis, a fixture of county politics who had spent nearly two decades in the state Senate, decided to run in the GOP primary. "What I remember more than anything else was her enthusiasm," Denis said. "I felt that this was something may be I lacked a little."
After a count that extended over several days, Denis emerged with a 143-vote victory out of more than 20,000 votes cast.
Kane eyed a run two years later for the House of Delegates, but it came with a twist. Because of post-census redistricting, the Kane home moved from legislative District 15, which includes much of Upcounty Montgomery, to District 16, which extends south to the District line, encompassing Bethesda.
While waiting for the redistricting process to play out, the Kanes sold their house. The family ended up moving about two miles away, remaining in Potomac but in the more GOP-friendly district.
Kane ran another spirited race and gained key endorsements but finished last among six candidates vying for the district's three seats, separated by only five percentage points. That night, Ehrlich - celebrating his gubernatorial win - left a condolence message for Kane. After his inauguration, Kane was named a deputy secretary of state, and two years later, she was approved for the secretary's job.
As secretary, she pushed through a "safe at home" program that allows victims of domestic violence to keep their home addresses confidential in public records to keep dangerous family members away. "She proved she could work across party aisles," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick), who sponsored the bill.
After Ehrlich lost his 2006 reelection bid, Montgomery County's newly elected state's attorney, Democrat John McCarthy, offered Kane a job as a prosecutor handling juvenile cases in the county courts. The work, which Kane described as "emotional" and "very stressful," took its toll. She left the job after less than a year, moving to a high-level job at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She is on leave from the post for her current run.
In his selection of Kane, Ehrlich made a choice his backers hoped would improve his showing among two key groups among which Ehrlich trails badly: women and Montgomery County residents.
But the ticket's Montgomery appeal is constrained by some of its policy positions - including opposition to a rail-based Metro Purple Line and increased state education funding for areas with high personnel costs, both of which Ehrlich and Kane oppose due to their fiscal impact.
There are also questions about how effective Kane's outreach to women has been. In The Washington Post's most recent poll on the governor's race, Ehrlich trails among women likely to vote, 33 percent to O'Malley's 62. Among likely voters in Montgomery, Ehrlich's gap is about the same, 65 to 33 percent.
On the campaign trail, Haller said, Kane has not been deployed to audiences that might find her appealing, but rather has been preaching to choirs already sympathetic to the GOP ticket.
"I think the campaign understands that the governor is the top of the ticket," Kane said. "I think a good lieutenant governor can help a little bit, but people are still going to be voting for O'Malley and Ehrlich."