Path of Ehrlich's political success
Goal: In many ways, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has been preparing for Tuesday's election for most of his life.
By Sarah Koenig
November 2, 2002
Second of two articles.
There it is, printed in the program for a Princeton University football
game: "A politics major, Ehrlich will enroll in law school next September.
After that he hopes to get involved in
Maryland politics on either the state or federal level."
Tuesday's election has been on Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s to-do list for
20 years at least, and in some ways, his life has been arranged like an
extended training regimen for this, the greatest
contest of his career. The words of a 21-year-old Ehrlich in that same program still sound apt: "I've set my goal of winning the championship. It's my last year and I won't be satisfied with
To get here, to the shiny edge of a razor-thin gubernatorial race against
Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Ehrlich, 44, and his boosters have
engineered what has so far been a
surefire recipe for electoral success. He has, he often points out, run for office 13 times, and 13 times he has won.
Even those Ehrlich has vanquished are not surprised by his record. "Bob
had much more fire in the belly," says Gerry L. Brewster, a Democrat who
lost to Ehrlich in his first
congressional race in 1994. "Bob was very ambitious and was fully prepared to do whatever it took to get elected. For Bobby, it's all about winning."
Others agree the Baltimore County congressman is driven by a steely
will, but say there is also a nobler motive. "I can say two things. I genuinely
think he likes public service," says
David B. Hamilton, who has known Ehrlich since 1983, when they were young lawyers at the same firm. "It may sound trite, but that is a genuine impression. Another is, he's fiercely
competitive, because he wants to be a leader. Why does he want to be a leader? That goes back to the first thing."
Ehrlich grew up in Arbutus, the only child of adoring parents who readily
acknowledge that he was, and is, the center of their lives. His father,
Robert L. Ehrlich Sr., talks of him almost
"Look," he said. "This is my kid. I am his father. But I stand in awe
of this kid. He don't drink. He don't smoke. He don't even curse. If you
went into his bedroom right now, you would
find his Bible open. He reads his Scripture every night. I don't know where he got that from. Not me. I was a street kid."
Neither of his parents went to fancy schools, never mind college. But
their sports-crazed son, by dint of his father's boss' connections and
his own ability as an adolescent linebacker,
was given a scholarship to Gilman School. Suddenly he had to compete in a new arena: the classroom.
He graduated heaped with athletic awards in three sports and went to
Princeton. He had been interested in politics from a young age (his mother
was active in the local GOP) and in
college he joined the Young Republicans. The group took a trip to Washington and visited three lawmakers, including former pro football player Jack Kemp - whose son, a Dartmouth
quarterback, played against Ehrlich.
Kemp has remained a mentor. "He coined the term 'progressive conservative,'
" Ehrlich said. "I don't use that term, because I think it confuses people.
But if you asked me what my
political philosophy was, that would probably be it."
Ehrlich majored in politics and wrote his senior thesis on Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn (another political hero, he says, along with Winston Churchill).
"It was about how his religious views
and values impacted his political philosophy," Ehrlich said.
But it was Ehrlich's prowess on the football field, not in the classroom,
that earned him recognition. As a linebacker and co-captain, his competitiveness
was legendary. He played with
broken fingers, cracked ribs, a busted wrist.
In 1978, the New Jersey Sunday Times Advertiser wrote: "One of these
days he'll probably go berserk and single-handedly wipe out Brown or Penn
as his revenge for the suffering they
have inflicted upon the Tigers in Ehrlich's three previous years at Princeton."
From Princeton, Ehrlich went to Wake Forest University School of Law
in Winston-Salem, N.C. Before graduation, in 1982, he landed a job at Ober,
Kaler, Grimes and Shriver in Baltimore.
It was the firm of former U.S. Attorney Jervis Finney, the brother of Redmond C.S. Finney, the Gilman headmaster who had mentored Ehrlich and helped pay for his education. Ehrlich had
clerked at the firm during law school.
Ehrlich was hired for the $30,500-a-year job. It would take him three
tries to pass the Maryland bar exam. He wasn't accustomed to failure. "That
was one of the real difficult episodes of
my life," he said. "I was so used to being successful."
Much of his time there was taken up with defending the asbestos manufacturer GAF Corp., which has paid millions of dollars to settle claims with thousands of local steel workers.
Although he came from a working-class neighborhood, Ehrlich said he was not troubled by his advocacy for corporations such as GAF.
"I thought they were not one of the bad guys in the litigation. They
had been sued because they acquired another company," he said. "Also, I
came to see how unfair mass litigation
could be to everyone, including the plaintiffs."
His asbestos work for Ober, Kaler has come into play in the election.
United Steelworkers of America is running radio ads about his 1987 vote
as a delegate on a bill to limit the time in
which asbestos-affected workers could file for compensation. Ehrlich, a former member of the House Ethics Committee, says he was not cited for breaching conflict of interest rules.
Ehrlich liked two aspects of lawyering: the people at the firm and arguing in court.
But he says he didn't like the practice of law generally. "I did not like charging people [fees]," said Ehrlich, who has received $9 million in campaign donations in recent months.
Ready for the House
By 1986, he was ready to run for the Maryland House of Delegates. In
what would become the first of many rough-and-tumble campaigns, Ehrlich
challenged three incumbent GOP
delegates in the primary. His 11th-hour tactics - a "report card" mailing containing bold assertions and rating the other candidates a "D" - shocked the incumbents who were used to a
more genteel style.
Ehrlich won. In the House, he served on the Judiciary Committee, which
he talks of with great fondness. "There was an incredibly strong feeling
of collegiality. Party was meaningless. ...
It was real legislators working on real cutting-edge stuff."
Ehrlich worked on tort reform legislation and bills requested by corporations.
He also concentrated on child abuse bills and on increasing criminal penalties.
After two years of effort, he
helped pass a stalled bill regarding the use of hearsay in child sexual abuse cases.
He was a loyal Republican, but fellow lawmakers said he collaborated
easily with Democrats and worked hard. "A lot of times, he and I were the
ones who kind of closed down the
building at night," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who co-sponsored legislation with Ehrlich regarding limited liability companies.
On gun bills, though, Ehrlich voted with the Republican leadership.
He opposed most gun-control measures, including a bill to ban assault weapons.
During his first congressional
campaign in 1994, the National Rifle Association gave him his third-largest contribution.
(On other issues, though, Ehrlich has sometimes switched sides, a tendency
noted by his opponents, who accuse him of trying to build a resume pleasing
to moderates. He has voted
both ways on flag burning, on posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings and on limiting plaintiff awards in lawsuits.)
The 1994 campaign against Brewster, a fellow Gilman and Princeton classmate
from a well-to-do political family, still rankles his opponent. He says
Ehrlich pitted his working-class roots
against Brewster's privilege, just as he is doing now with Townsend. "It's sort of ironic," Brewster said. "He had two of the most supportive parents a person could have. ... My parents
split when I was 9, and my father was an alcoholic."
Brewster says Ehrlich's campaign also played dirty - he contends his
phone was tapped, his car vandalized, his property watched. Ehrlich denies
any wrongdoing. In any case, Ehrlich
As he rose within GOP ranks in Congress, Ehrlich kept his eye on opportunities
to run statewide in Maryland, carefully planting seeds of future support.
He has traveled the state widely,
and a few years ago he started a political action committee for local Republicans, doling out thousands of dollars to General Assembly candidates. Friends from Gilman, from his old law
firm, from the old neighborhood, have all helped out this time.
Ehrlich's easy, clean-cut persona has helped him prevail. The guards
on Capitol Hill high-five him. At a campaign stop in Lanham, an excited
supporter calls his wife. "Hey Carmen, this is
the governor!" Ehrlich shouts into the cell phone. "You're an Elkridge girl?"
In Congress, his ways seem Boy-Scoutish. His raciest after-hours pastimes
include inviting colleagues to his Timonium home for dinner or playing
golf with fellow congressmen Tom
DeLay and Lindsey Graham.
Early on, Ehrlich rented a one-bedroom apartment on the Hill (so scruffy
that his wife, Kendel, refused to spend the night there, he says), but
he gave it up after his son, Drew, was born
in 1999, and now goes home every night. Even before that, he reserved every Friday afternoon for his wife.
Unlike any other member the House, Ehrlich keeps a small table outside
his office stocked with news releases and newspaper clippings about his
congressional doings. Sonny Bono, who
became a good friend of Ehrlich's, used to call it the "Bob Is Great" table, Ehrlich said. "He would write nasty things on it, like 'Bob sucks.' 'Bob needs to go home.' "
Despite his ironclad determination to win, Ehrlich says if he loses,
he will go home. As one of his mentors in the House of Delegates used to
say, "If you lose, believe me, the legislature
meets again next year," Ehrlich said. "This is a job you cannot fall in love with. I have a check every morning to make sure that never happens."
Sun staff writer John Woestendiek contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun