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.
At times, defending rapists and other violent offenders jarred the conscience of everyone in the office, Friedman said. But the young lawyer from Lutherville handled the task with an unusual degree of compassion. "We'd have these long lunchtime conversations about those cases," he said. And they inevitably ended "with her vowing not only to plow ahead, but to help troubled clients find treatment."
Bob and Kendel Ehrlich married in 1993, and not long after her husband won a congressional seat, she became a prosecutor of juvenile offenders. But "political spouse" comes with its own responsibilities. During her first orientation luncheon for congressional wives, talk focused not on policy but on designer gowns. She left with a document titled "The 14 Points of Accessorizing."
At the time, she was aghast. But her friends say she has learned to adapt. A few weeks after her offhand remark about Spears circled the globe, she told an audience at Carroll Community College in Westminster that she was starting to accept that she was "not just Kendel in somebody's kitchen."
"Kendel is still an independent woman," said Mary Schumaker, who worked as a detention counselor when Kendel Ehrlich was defending inmates. "But she knows there's also a public side to her life now."
To that end, Kendel Ehrlich has been shadowed by a reporter while traveling to a milliner to buy just the right hat for the Preakness Stakes. She was featured as the 5-foot-9 star attraction in a fashion show fundraiser in Baltimore, sashaying like a runway model, shoulders back, in a black designer gown with Swarovski crystals running down each side.
On her official Web site, she tells visitors that "traveling the State and interacting with children of all ages and from all walks of life is one of my favorite things about being First Lady."
The image is tightly guarded by her press secretary, Meghann Siwinski, and by the governor's marketing team. Siwinski said she permits the first lady to conduct formal interviews with "feature writers" only, not news reporters. When approached at a speaking event recently, Kendel Ehrlich said that she has made no secret of her contempt for the way the area's largest newspapers have covered her husband and that she agreed when the governor's press secretary advised her not to comment for this article. "Frankly," she said before walking away, "There's no trust."
A Tacit Presence
From the day her husband took office as the state's first Republican governor in a generation, Kendel Ehrlich began crafting a fresh design for a job that has few official duties. Interviews with her friends, a scan of her public schedule and news accounts show she is juggling a dizzying array of private and public responsibilities.
Like other first ladies, she has adopted charitable causes and policy initiatives and has kept a steady schedule of speaking engagements, mostly highlighting an issue long of importance to her: drug and alcohol abuse.
On a recent stop at Benfield Elementary School in Anne Arundel, she worked the gymnasium, asking wide-eyed fifth-graders, "Can you imagine losing a son or a brother to someone who had been drinking and driving and all of a sudden killed them? It's horrible," she said.
During her talks, she refers frequently to her two boys, Drew, 4, and Joshua, 1. Friends say she has been determined not to let her position supersede her role as parent.
At the same time, she has been a quiet presence in her husband's inner circle. A top aide said that although Kendel has never been to a senior staff meeting: "She's influential. She'll weigh in."
She did so on numerous high-level appointments, records show. One e-mail sent to Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. by a deputy chief of staff discusses a possible job for Friedman, the former county public defender. In it, Friedman's hire is called "a Kendel priority." Friedman was appointed to head the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
Another internal document, from the Department of Human Resources, lists candidates for key jobs and indicates who recommended them. Several, including three women who eventually were made department heads, are described as Kendel hires.
T. Joseph Touhey, her former boss at an Anne Arundel litigation practice, said she played a key role in the appointment of Judge Clayton Greene Jr., his former colleague, to the state's highest court.
"You can bet your life that [Greene] enlisted the aid of Kendel," Touhey said, adding that the governor often has depended on his wife for advice on judicial appointments. "If I was Bob Ehrlich, and I was not leaning on Kendel for advice and counsel, I think I'd have my head examined."
Kendel Ehrlich also has been quietly exerting herself at key moments on behalf of her husband's legislative initiatives.
Del. Carol S. Petzold (D-Montgomery) learned this the hard way. In the midst of a heated battle over legislation proposing to alter the makeup of the state's Commission for Women, Petzold sought permission to host a luncheon for a national, bipartisan group of women legislators at the governor's mansion.
But when she called the first lady's office, she was rebuffed.
"The woman in the first lady's office said Kendel wouldn't make a decision until after the session, when she finds out how the bill on the Commission for Women comes out," Petzold said.
Petzold said that confirmed for her what Annapolis insiders have said for some time: that Kendel Ehrlich is not just a cheerleader for her husband, but a pivotal player in the administration.
The street festival in downtown Baltimore had all the trappings of spring: schoolgirls dancing around the maypole, flower baskets lending bold color to the cobblestone square and prominent officials on hand to pass out blue ribbons under radiant sunshine.
But onstage, a thick frost separated Kendel Ehrlich from Martin O'Malley, the Democratic mayor of Baltimore who aims to unseat her husband next year.
"There were no fireworks, no words, but they were clearly avoiding eye contact," said Schaefer, who sat between them. "They didn't go over and hug or anything. They just tried to be civil."
The chill between the O'Malleys and the Ehrlichs has intensified significantly since published reports showed that one of the governor's aides was spreading rumors about the mayor's personal life. Martin O'Malley decried the rumors as false and hurtful. The governor fired the aide, Joseph F. Steffen Jr. In the aftermath, reporters unearthed an e-mail exchange between Steffen and Kendel Ehrlich.
In it, Steffen warns her of an impending newspaper report and offers to "throw myself on the grenade" to head off any scandal. She replies, "Relax. You'll be fine. We need you," and signs it "Ken."
In another e-mail, Steffen tells a friend that "the 1st Lady and I email back and forth on occasion."
The governor's office said the two rarely had dealings, calling Steffen a "professional acquaintance" of the first lady. The governor's chief counsel would not provide a copy of her calendar, but in denying the request, he wrote, "Mrs. Ehrlich wishes us, however, to disclose . . . one meeting with ex-employee Joseph Steffen, which occurred on August 5, 2003, from 9 to 9:30 a.m."
With the controversy as a backdrop, the mayor joined the first lady on the Flower Mart stage, where they shook hands mechanically. Hours earlier, O'Malley had lashed out at the governor before a bank of cameras. Yet when Kendel Ehrlich took the microphone to deliver greetings on behalf of her husband, she wore a broad smile and let out a hearty laugh.
"Mr. Mayor," she said before reading a proclamation, "Thank you for ordering this terrific day."