So this is what more than three decades of pent-up yearning to party looks like.
The music is loud, the wine plentiful, the dancing delirious, the possibilities . . . endless. Maryland Republicans haven't had a night like this in so long that some of them forgot what it's like. Some were born so late they had heard only rumors that it could be like this -- lore handed down by elders, possibly apocryphal.
Yes, once upon a time a Republican dwelt in the governor's mansion in Annapolis, and last night Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. laid claim again, as thousands of supporters celebrated and savored the moment at twin inaugural galas in Baltimore.
"I was at [Spiro] Agnew's inaugural ball in 1967, and I thought I wasn't going to live long enough to see another Republican elected," said Brenda Butscher, Republican Party chairman in Garrett County. "This is just very exciting."
"All the time in the minority, and we're finding out today we're in control," said Butscher's friend Karen Lancaster, from Kent County.
Well, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly might quibble with that -- but pardon the Republicans if they were just a bit giddy. Thirty-six years is a long time in exile. Ehrlich and his lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, had led them back.
More than 4,000 tickets to the gala in the Baltimore Convention Center sold out so fast that inaugural planners quickly added a second, virtually identical gala across the street at Camden Yards. People snapped up another 2,000 or so tickets at $100 a pop for that bash. This was an apparently unprecedented outpouring for a Maryland governor's debut.
At the Convention Center, enormous floor-to-ceiling white sheets resembling sails on the Chesapeake Bay, or somewhere, rose from the food stations, where chefs served crab cakes, turkey and tenderloin, and mashed potatoes in martini glasses. On large screens around the room pictures of Ehrlich and Steele with voters alternated with the names of corporate sponsors of the festivities beamed in oversize letters: Northrop Grumman, Philip Morris, Pepco, Discovery Communications . . .
Multicolored spotlights flashed around the room, and in one golden shaft just off the dance floor a woman was soaking it all in, dreamily, eyes closed. It was Ann Fenwick, a financial planner from Towson, who explained: "I'm in celebration of Republicans coming back to Baltimore. It's been a long time."
Nancy Hoyt had a cast on beneath her ball gown. A broken leg wasn't going to keep her out of this party. On the cast was a bumper sticker: "Another State Employee for Ehrlich."
"We're very excited about having the new boss," said the program administrator with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "There's a lot of things that need to be changed in state government, and I think he can do it."
Isn't she afraid of joining the ranks of those already being fired by the new administration? "Do-nothing appointees are. Real workers are happy he's coming. Bob is a man of the people."
But enough politics -- more crab cakes, and what about a dance to that bluesy classic "Me and Bobby McGee," dedicated by the band Mary Lou and the Untouchables to "Bobby" Ehrlich?
The dance floor throbbed with Republicans partying like it was 2003.
At 10:30 p.m. Ehrlich and Steele and their families arrived and the governor and first lady Kendel Ehrlich danced to "Under the Boardwalk."
"Welcome, Republicans, out of the desert you have been in the last 36 years!" Ehrlich declared triumphantly.
The crowd erupted, and he had trouble continuing his remarks amid the whoops. "Shut the bar off," he joked.
"We had our first night in the new house; it was a good night, if you know what I mean," Ehrlich said, to more cheers. "We raided the refrigerator around midnight last night. It was great."
Then the governor, first lady, Steele and his wife, Andrea, began shaking hands around the room, accompanied by David Bowie's "Changes."
Across the road, the club level of Camden Yards was transformed into a depot for overflow supporters. Powerhouse, a 10-piece cover band dressed in aqua and fuchsia zoot suits, revved up the sequined and bow-tied crowd with their rendition of Pink's "Get This Party Started."
At 9:35 the Ehrlich-Steele posse made its way to the stage.
"Wow, look at the crowd," Ehrlich said.
Then he pointed his thumb back to Steele and said, "I don't know who this guy is, he's just been following me around for the past six months." Steele made a face to play along. "Michael will take control of the government and Kendel and I will go on vacation."
The new governor continued: "Kendel and I spent our first night in the mansion, and anyone that knows Kendel will get this: She says to me, 'I'm not going to have to cook anymore.' . . . The last time I got a home-cooked meal was during the Nixon administration." The crowd erupted.
He couldn't miss.
Steele was more to the point. He introduced his family, then said to the crowd, "Now we're going to par-tay!"
The crowd applauded and screamed: "We love you, Mike!"
The week of celebration and pomp and circumstance culminating with tonight's galas has been striking for the connection that supporters seem to feel for the new governor, his lieutenant and their families. True believers always act that way toward their leaders, but can that alone explain such large and passionate crowds?
Earlier in the day, when Ehrlich and his wife emerged from the State House for the ceremonial swearing-in, the crowd filling the square below erupted in whoops and whistles and cheers.
The applause at the midday inaugural ceremony in Annapolis was frequent yet muffled: Thousands of gloved and mittened hands clapping in a bitter cold that couldn't keep the masses away.
This is the excitement of the new -- and the fire of Maryland Republicans coming in from the cold.
After so long on the hunt for the keys to the governor's mansion, the Republicans needed more than two balls in one night to celebrate. The official partying began Monday night in Baltimore with an "Inaugural Jam," followed Tuesday evening by an "Inaugural Concert" in College Park -- which added a little geographic diversity to the fun.
"I was given one decision to make this entire week," Ehrlich told the audience of a few hundred Tuesday at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. "That was, what group I wanted to play this week for the concert. The only group I wanted was the Spinners, because we love the Spinners."
Spinners? Was this just because he's a politician?
No, Ehrlich seems to sincerely groove on the 1960s- and '70s-vintage Detroit soul sound of the Spinners.
Before the aging crooners in sky-blue suits with silver sparkles stepped up to their microphones, Robert and Kendel Ehrlich and Michael and Andrea Steele feigned their own quartet.
"Ain't no stopping us now!" the governor- and lieutenant governor-elect sang while their spouses clapped.
But wait, wasn't that a song by McFadden & Whitehead, not the Spinners? Never mind, the crowd dug it, and the Spinners' backup band even played a few licks. Steele seemed to have the better voice. He could have gone on, but was too modest. "I promised not to do anything that would shorten our term," he said.
In fact he has musical talent, as confirmed by Ronald Frezzo, who conducted the Richard Montgomery High School Madrigals out of Rockville, the opening act for the Spinners. Frezzo was Steele's chorus teacher at Archbishop Carroll High School in the District. "He's got a wonderful voice," Frezzo disclosed during intermission. "He was the Devil in 'Damn Yankees.' He moved beautifully onstage."
The crowd, in seats costing $35 and $40, didn't seem to know who should get more standing ovations -- the new administration or the Spinners. In the end, reprising hits like "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," "Then Came You," "I'll Be Around" and "The Rubberband Man," the Spinners won the standing-O count, perhaps only because they were onstage longer.
The Spinners also added an unexpected bit of drama. After a couple of numbers, tenor Spinner Bobbie Smith -- panting from his exertions -- made a confession. On Sunday, the group discovered that tenor and lead singer G.C. Cameron had "disappeared." The Spinners thought they'd have to cancel the concert. At the last minute, an associate of the band found a substitute, one Frank Washington of Philadelphia.
"This is the first time you've ever seen this guy," Smith told the crowd, "and the first time we've ever seen this guy."
Would the new guy bomb? He missed a few high notes, blew a segue in "Working My Way Back to You" -- but otherwise he did great.
"God is good," Smith said, seeing that the concert would not be a disaster. And Washington said singing with the Spinners was his dream come true.
Isn't that like what this week of celebration is all about for the Republicans -- their starring role in Maryland come at last? Can they sing the part better than the Democrats, panting and in some cases disappeared after having called the tune all these years?
Ehrlich was already talking dynasty. He and Steele each have a son named Drew. The dads have a slogan, Ehrlich revealed: "Drew and Drew in '32!"
But wait, there's no Maryland gubernatorial race in 2032. He must have been referring to the White House.
It was all-powerful affirmation for long-struggling Maryland Republicans.
"I've been a Republican for a long time," said Shaun Patterson, 43, a computer network engineer from Columbia who attended the concert. "It makes me feel good to be a Republican. I'm not ashamed to be a Republican, but I bet a lot of Republicans are coming out of the closet now."
But not only Republicans were celebrating the historic GOP takeover of the governor's mansion. At Hammerjacks in downtown Baltimore Monday night, the club was thick with Democrats partying during the thumping, funk-driven Inaugural Jam.
Ehrlich and Steele couldn't have prevailed without plenty of crossover Dems in the heavily Democratic state, and when the dynamic duo made an appearance about an hour into the party, Democrat and Republican alike rushed the stage to bask in the victors' aura.
George Harden, a lifelong Democrat from Owings Mills, pushed his way through the crowd and pumped Ehrlich's hand. "That's all I wanted to do," Harden said on returning to his daughter, Erin, 22, who had been hanging back and watching her dad act not unlike the swooning fan of some rock star.
"From a personal standpoint, I wanted to see change," Harden said. "I truly think this is better for Maryland, and that's more important than the Democratic Party having power."
Harden was not too old for a party that had been conceived for young Ehrlich-Steele partisans. Plenty in the crowd of several hundred people looked old enough to remember Agnew in 1966. Maybe that's why it took a couple hours before people felt loose enough to fill the dance floor. Most people at the jam also happened to be African American. Harden, who is white, surveyed the room and said, "No Republican Party ever looked like this. This is Lincoln's Republican Party."
And let that be a wake-up call to the Democratic Party, said the many black Democrats delirious over the Ehrlich-Steele triumph. At one table were several women on the Democratic Central Committee in Baltimore. While Helen Bradford stood up to boogie like she couldn't really be 81, her friend and fellow Democrat Kay Merrill was shouting to be heard over the rhythmic din: "The last Republican I voted for was Mac Mathias" -- the Maryland moderate who left the Senate in 1987. "You don't take my vote for granted. If you want to keep me in your party, you're going to have to begin to reach out to me."
But Ehrlich is not known as a Mathias-like liberal. Merrill said that's only because he represented a conservative district in Congress. She believes as governor he will reflect his broader constituency.
The Jam was for people who couldn't pay $100 to attend tonight's galas but didn't want to be left out. A $20 ticket bought you an open bar and all the meatballs, chicken, pasta, fresh oysters and cake you could eat. When the band took a break, a DJ took over, so there was never silence. You felt the bass notes in your lungs.
People weren't inclined to dwell much on issues -- maybe because this was a party. What they were thrilled for was the notion of Change, and the chemistry Ehrlich and Steele have together, the way they come across as down-to-earth. It's a new style, and everyone seemed sure it came with excellent substance.
"It wasn't the same spaghetti, we had a different dish this time," said Arlene Fisher, who campaigned for Ehrlich even as she was running, unsuccessfully, for a Democratic spot in the House of Delegates representing Baltimore. She said she was tired of the same old Democratic regime, one that didn't seem to be doing anything for desperate city neighborhoods. She thinks Ehrlich and Steele will funnel state support to the rescue.
"I've been through a lot of elections," Fisher said. "But this is a different feeling. This one is so energized. I can't wait to see what will happen next."
"Granted, Ehrlich is a Republican, Steele is a Republican, but you have two men not born with silver spoons in their mouths, who know how to work to get to something," said Desiree Dodson, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in Baltimore. "People feel this administration is more accessible than the previous one. They feel they are -- key word -- sincere."
Change, energy, sincerity.
But where were all the Republicans?
There's one! He was Rex Reed, 29, of Gaithersburg, national committeeman for the Maryland Young Republicans. He said the enthusiasm that Ehrlich and Steele project in public appearances has done wonders for recruiting. "It's very exciting now," said Reed, who had been moping after the number of GOP officeholders in Montgomery County dropped from eight to two in the past year. "Now with all this going on I feel better."
Even with all these Democrats in the house?
"They are future Republicans," Reed said.
There are two more Republicans: Carl M. Adair and his brother Verdell, from Baltimore. Carl has run unsuccessfully for city council and mayor. "We've been laboring in the field over thirty-some years in Baltimore City for the Republican Party," he said. "We're just elated we could get somebody in the governor's mansion. When you have a one-party system, you have a lot of stagnation, and we've had a lot of stagnation for a long time."
Ehrlich and Steele arrived, spoke for a few minutes, then departed. They thanked the crowd gathered in a city that's supposed to be a Democratic stronghold.
And on display again was the personal chemistry and disarming informality that has impressed some voters.
It was like a comedy routine, the Bob and Mike show. Bob shed his sport coat. Mike kept his blazer on over a white turtleneck.
"A major controversy is brewing in the Ehrlich-Steele administration already," Ehrlich deadpanned. He reminded everyone how he played college football, while Steele was on the fencing team.
"If you think fencers are athletes, let's hear it," Ehrlich said.
There was a huge cheer -- bigger than when Ehrlich asked who thought fencers were not athletes.
"You won!" Ehrlich laughed to Steele.
"En garde, my friend," said Steele.
Before departing, Steele said, "Kick off your shoes and have a good Ehrlich-Steele time."
So jam! Finally around 10 p.m. the dance floor was jammed. As the night heated up, advice came in another dance tune blasted out by the DJ:
It's getting hot in here
So take off all your clothes.
Go, Democrats, go, Republicans -- now you can really get to know each other in Maryland.
Tonight at the convention center gala, hundreds of Republicans packed the dance floor so tightly they looked like a single pulsing phenomenon. They didn't appear to need many Democrats as they did " 'Da Butt" in their formal finery. And then, like a refrain from the week of celebration, a familiar melody filled the room, played this time by the funk band Panama.
Ain't no stopping us now, we're on the move . . .
Later, Ehrlich said, "Tonight it's about fun, it's about dancing. . . . Tomorrow it's about beginning the business of government."
Staff writer Stephen A. Crockett Jr. contributed to this report.