Tied in Annapolis
As Linebacker and Candidate, Bob Ehrlich Won Against the Odds. Can He Still Recover a Fumble?

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page D01

As a teenager in suburban Baltimore, the future governor of Maryland used to play a rough brand of sandlot football with older, bigger guys. He gave as good as he got. Later, on scholarship at Princeton, he had to bulk up to survive as a linebacker. He not only thrived, he became co-captain.

In his first election, in 1986, he bucked his party by defeating an incumbent Republican state delegate. He fought his way to Congress in 1995.

Two years ago, in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, he became the first Republican to reach the governor's mansion in 36 years.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has frequently been the underdog, up against the odds, and every time he has found a way to triumph.

What happened? In the past two years, that triumphal arc has seemed stymied. The usual ability to get winning results has seemed to falter.

He feels like an underdog again, with the final score still in doubt.

Imagine: So much power -- yet still that uphill feeling.

It envelops him on this night -- especially on this night -- as the clock ticks toward midnight near the end of an extraordinary legislative session just after Christmas.

Tension plus fatigue has everyone acting a little giddy in the Annapolis State House. Dour doctors in white coats patrol the halls, proffering diagnoses of doom.

Ehrlich, 47, is supposed to be on a mountain in Western Maryland with first lady Kendel Ehrlich teaching their older son, Drew, 5, how to ski. Instead, he has rousted legislators from their holidays to fix the state's medical malpractice crisis. Many doctors are curtailing their practices rather than pay skyrocketing insurance premiums.

For the governor, the session is a high-stakes gamble. After months of barnstorming, he has elevated malpractice reform to the realm of paramount importance once occupied by his failed effort to bring slot machines to Maryland. Now, with the whole state watching, if he can't close a deal with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, it will suggest paralysis and invite parallels to two years of slots debacles.

In the corridor outside his office where visitors wait, an infinite-loop slide show clicks away. It is a gallery of sunny scenes of the handsome governor: giving a speech, attending the Preakness, handing out transportation funds, greeting a police officer, swinging a golf club, holding up his other son, 10-month-old Joshua.

The slides don't have captions but they could share one: "Being governor is fun."

Except at the moment. The special session is imploding.

Ehrlich happens to be standing near the slide show, in front of a photo of himself wearing sunglasses, when a GOP senator bounds over like a messenger boy holding a telegram.

The governor's face tightens into a bitter smile. The news: An agreement he thought he had reached has evaporated -- though Democratic leaders deny there was an agreement. Ehrlich laughs derisively as the senator recites the compromise bill the Democrats have just come up with -- fewer curbs on lawsuits than he wants and a 2 percent tax on health maintenance organizations to pay for doctor relief.

"That's leadership," he scoffs.

He'd rather the malpractice crisis continue for now than accept what he considers a bad bill and a new tax.

"I'll veto it at my convenience," he vows.

Derision flows both ways. Outside the conference committee room, Democratic House Speaker Mike Busch blurts out to no one in particular: "You bring everybody here for two days. You have the governor prancing around" -- here Busch adopts a singsong voice -- " 'I'm going to veto.'

"What is the point?"

The Fight of His Life

It's a question one might ask after so many public showdowns over the past two years.

Ehrlich has scheduled a "veto-signing press event" for tomorrow. Democrats will attempt to override the veto Tuesday, followed by the start of the regular 90-day session Wednesday. The malpractice meltdown reinforces dueling images of Ehrlich for critics and supporters: Here is a politician with a partisan chip on his shoulder that prevents him from getting the big things done. Or: Here is a governor standing on principle against an ossified establishment.

Either way, he governs as if he's in the sandlot fight of his life. Cue the highlight reel of highly visible, what-is-the-point? moments:

The new governor nominates an in-your-face controversial environmental secretary -- and the Democrats promptly vote her down, the first rejection of a cabinet nominee in state history. The governor, on a talk radio show, declares multiculturalism "bunk" and "crap." The governor forbids state employees to speak to two Baltimore Sun reporters. The governor calls Democratic appeals to black voters "racist." The governor accuses Busch of "playing the race card" on slots.

Oh yes, the slots war, a fine mess on Ehrlich's signature issue. For two years the Democrats and the governor huffed and puffed and postured so furiously it made voters' eyes roll like jackpot lemons. The payoff: another bilious stalemate.

It was complicated, with Democrats battling among themselves. At one point the Senate passed a bill, but the issue never reached the House floor. There was blame to go around, but it was the governor who campaigned on the issue, to solve the budget crisis and save horse racing, he said. Even though he had the backing of Mike Miller, the powerful Senate president, he couldn't deliver. There was a moment when it seemed he could have gotten slots through the House if he would have agreed to hundreds of millions in taxes that some Democrats said were also needed to fix the budget. The governor refused to deal.

Not that nothing has been accomplished. In his first year only two of Ehrlich's initiatives survived the legislature, one to make it easier to establish charter schools and one to enhance juvenile justice education. But last year, about two-thirds of 18 initiatives succeeded, including landmark legislation to raise $66 million a year to reduce sewage flowing into the Chesapeake Bay and a measure to raise $173 million a year for transportation projects.

Both were funded with hikes in fees -- water bills and vehicle registrations -- not higher taxes. It's a vital distinction for Ehrlich -- but a distinction without a difference for his critics.

Ehrlich attributes legislative disappointments to Democrats bent on seeing a Republican fail. He and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele were elected with 52 percent of the vote, and a Baltimore Sun poll in October said Ehrlich enjoyed a 59 percent approval rating. Still, Ehrlich is riveted on a different statistic: The General Assembly, and the state's registered voters, are 2-to-1 Democratic. Ehrlich was able to defeat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend by appealing as an affable moderate to voters who had wearied of eight years of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"I guess I had underestimated the extent to which some would resent the fact that there is a new player in town," Ehrlich says in an interview. "And now I was coming back not as 'Bobby' " -- as he is known from his delegate days -- "I was coming back as governor, with my views and my philosophy and a whole new set of players and new appointments, new cabinet, new regulators, you name it. And this town was not accustomed, nor did it expect for us to win, and it certainly didn't expect this entire new regime to come to play here.

"There is an anger, an anger that's real. It began on Election Day and has not dissipated to any extent, and I think the more successful we are, basically, on a policy end, the more it's thought that we might be around here for a while, the angrier they get."

Democrats hear such talk and wonder if the governor inhabits an alternate universe, a desperate, zero-sum combat zone that does not resemble their chummy Annapolis.

"He takes this personally," says Miller. "He has a thin skin. If you have a thin skin, you shouldn't be in politics. . . . We had a Republican governor named Theodore McKeldin [1951-59] who was one of the most successful governors in the history of the state. But he governed from the middle. Spiro Agnew [1967-69] -- under his administration, they passed a progressive graduated income tax. He reached out."

The Democrats tire of hearing about how much of an underdog the governor thinks he is against what is in reality an internally fractured Democratic team. Ehrlich's Democratic predecessors, Glendening and William Donald Schaefer, had stormy relations with the legislature and still passed major initiatives.

Ehrlich "came in paranoid that there was going to be this backlash, and he had to shore up the tent and hold on and fight, fight, fight," says Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat who represents a Republican section of Baltimore County. "In reality, it was a 2-to-1 Democratic state saying, 'Let's give this guy a chance,' and moderate and conservative Democrats were waiting for an invitation to come and talk about public policy that would move Maryland forward."

The governor's allies discount Democratic siren calls for more compromise.

"Their idea of compromise is doing things their way -- if he doesn't change his mind and abandon his principles, he's not compromising," says Carol Hirschburg, a Maryland GOP activist and public relations consultant. "He's not going to raise taxes. He's actually not going to do that. How could that be happening? They just don't get that."

The Sports Junkies

Drive time on a Wednesday morning. You flip on the radio. There's the hearty sound of regular guys shooting the breeze.

WHFS's Sports Junkies: What if, like, you and the beautiful first lady need a moment together, what do you do? There's no middle-of-the-day moment?

Ehrlich: It's like, she says, 'You want to go and have a romantic getaway?' Just the two of us -- and four Maryland state troopers!

Junkies: Hahaha!

When Ehrlich has had it with Annapolis, he gets out of town. He takes his message and personality directly to the people. He's a natural. It is almost as though the state has two chief executives: There is the wary, elbow-throwing governor in Annapolis, and there is "the Guv," the regular guy, the genial ex-jock. The Guv is the hero of those funny tourism ads, where he is always popping up to do your chores so you can go sample Maryland; the governor hopes to benefit from the GOP's new barrage of pointed political ads targeting Democrats to thwart a veto override.

Talk radio is his favorite medium to reach the people, one without an editorial filter. He's also partial to television cameras. He is frank about his disdain for The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, which he says are "not necessarily happy we're here."

This morning he is calling in to "The Junkies in the Morning," featuring the Sports Junkies, four buddies born and bred in Maryland -- J.P. Flaim, John "Cakes" Auville, Eric Bickel and Jason "Lurch" Bishop -- three Democratic supporters and one Republican, as it happens. Ehrlich has been a fan since he was commuting between Timonium and Capitol Hill. Now he calls in every week to make football picks.

On a recent business trip to Asia, he called the Junkies from Singapore to make his picks. If he picks more winners this season, the Junkies will have to stand at a busy intersection with an Ehrlich sign. If they pick more winners, he must take them golfing. Recently, they went to a Ravens game together.

Junkies: I gotta tell ya, this guy gets a reception that anybody would want. Of the 65,000 fans out there, I didn't hear one person heckle the guy.

Ehrlich: Well, it's pretty neat, you guys, I have to say.

Junkies: You know why, Guv? You're a man of the people!

Ehrlich's also a regular on political shows. It was in response to a question on WBAL in May that he referred to multiculturalism as "crap." After an uproar, he elaborated that he honors ethnicity, but believes America must be a melting pot with a common culture and language.

Such unscripted blunt talk is part of the Guv's appeal, say his allies.

"When he gets heat for saying multiculturalism is bunk and crap and he doesn't back down from that, the citizens love that," says Del. Anthony O'Donnell, the Republican minority whip.

Junkies: By the way, the governor is intense with his picks. He certainly is. Throughout the day he's constantly checking his games.

Ehrlich: I have to tell you guys, after halftime when I went up to [Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti's] box, and Condi Rice was there. I'm talking to her. I said, "Excuse me, Madam Secretary. Gotta go check the scores. I'll be right back to you."

Junkies: Hahaha!

Conveying regular guyness is a priceless political asset. Ehrlich says the key is a sense of humor, and you either have it or you don't.

"It shows that you're able to, as you take your job seriously, maybe not take yourself so seriously," he says. "I think there's a distinction there that successful people understand: What you do is important. I mean, I just came from a budget meeting. Those decisions are important. But taking yourself too seriously is, I think, one of the real illnesses of life."

He does a lot of barnstorming as well to bypass the legislators and address the voters personally. "The reason for it is, we start out generally 2-to-1 on every vote, so in order to achieve policy, I try to take advantage of the currency I have with the people," he says.

Visits by the Guv put Democratic legislators in swing districts on edge. "The governor is so popular in our district, his appearance does have an impact," says Sen. Philip Jimeno, a moderate Democrat from Anne Arundel County.

But Democrats grumble that Ehrlich should focus more on dealing with them directly. "If he spent one-tenth as much time working the legislature the way he works the Maryland constituency, he could get the job done," says Democratic Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, a moderate from Charles County.

Noontime outside the College Park Metro station, the Guv gives what amounts to a master class in barnstorming. He's handing out $20 million for roads, sidewalks, lighting, fruits of his bill passed by the legislature last session. He's in enemy territory -- did anyone vote for him in College Park? -- yet he's getting Democrats to take a second look.

"We pulled the precinct sheets," says Democratic Sen. John Giannetti, whose district this is, welcoming the governor. "I don't know who that person is, but somebody voted for you."

The governor throws his arm around a thin young man in a baggy sports coat. He is Aaron Kraus, 21, president of the University of Maryland student body. They met last year when Kraus launched a hunger strike outside the governor's mansion to protest Ehrlich's veto of a tuition cap. The Guv invited him into the mansion one night when it rained.

Now Ehrlich is delivering on a promise he made to Kraus on a college radio show: money for lighting on pedestrian routes to the Metro station.

"You just gotta learn how to suck up to the governor and you'll be all right," Ehrlich tells Kraus. "I'm going to make him a Republican if it kills me!"

"I've come to respect him," Kraus says later. He's still mad about the veto, but the Guv made -- and kept -- another promise: a "bump" in higher education funding in the new state budget due this month.

Junkies: Hey, governor, we gotta go here, but in the last 30 seconds . . . what's the hot-button issue of the last couple of days?

Ehrlich: It's this medical malpractice . . . Major issue here. Big-time issue.

Backroom Deals

Now that issue, like slots, is synonymous with bickering, showdowns, stalemates. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Remember that hopeful spring day nearly three years ago in Arbutus?

The son of a car salesman and a legal secretary stood on the stoop of his boyhood row house in the working-class Baltimore suburb to announce his candidacy. He presented himself as fiscally conservative but moderate on social issues -- and able to work with Democrats.

Standing on the humble stoop that day, Ehrlich said: "I have overcome a lot of obstacles in my life. I've been the underdog before."

Many of his old legislative friends hail from the freshman class of 1987, and like Ehrlich were assigned to the Maryland House Judiciary Committee. They recall an era of camaraderie that now seems like an impossible fable.

"We had jokes it was difficult to tell who was Republican and who was Democrat," says D. Bruce Poole, a conservative Democrat from Hagerstown who became majority leader but lost his seat to a Republican six years ago. "Bob was a backroom guy. We'd go in the backroom and work until midnight to get a piece of legislation that made sense and could pass muster."

Now everything is different. The partisan edge is much sharper, Democrats and Republicans agree, though they blame each other for the change.

"Everything has become more tied to the D.C. weathervane, whereas it used to be tied to the good-old-boy network," says Poole, who remains close to both Ehrlich and Busch, another committee freshman from the class of 1987.

Watching his old Republican friend dig in on issues, Poole disagrees with fellow Democrats who charge the governor with mere partisan gamesmanship.

"His reaction has been so strong, I come to the conclusion it's beyond politics," says Poole. "If you talk to Bob, there's no question he views Maryland as marching through a long course of just increasing taxation and regulation. I think he sees himself as having a historical role in changing that, and reversing course."

Poole remembers a summer in the late 1980s when they shared a beach house in Rehoboth. Busch was a regular visitor. Ehrlich was reading William Manchester's 1988 biography of Winston Churchill, "The Last Lion: Alone," about Churchill's wilderness years between the world wars, when he was out of favor with the dominant political establishment.

"If you dig deep into the psyche of Bob," says Poole, "his long history has been to be a maverick and to be an underdog and often to take a course that is different."

'They're Not Bad People'

It's almost midnight at the special session. The doctors in white coats look as though their patient is terminal. It will be another 3 1/2 hours before the Democrats pass what the governor has essentially pre-vetoed.

Ehrlich is not going to stick around. He's going to bed.

He steps across the street from the State House to the governor's mansion. Outside the wrought-iron gates, he pauses to reach out to the people one more time, through the lens of television camera. The Princeton football ring on his right ring finger catches the camera light.

First he speaks as the underdog, foiled by the powerful 2-to-1 Democrats: "I thought they were in my corner 48 hours ago. . . . 'Trust but verify' needs to be what we do."

He switches to Guv mode ever so briefly: "They're not bad people. They just have a different point of view."

Then he starts throwing elbows: "And that point of view has held sway in this town for decades, and they are just having a difficult time understanding there's another point of view up on the second floor of this [state] house. And that the Ehrlich-Steele administration does not simply buy into the status quo politics of have a problem, pass a tax. Have a new program, pass a tax. If it breathes, pass a tax. If it moves, pass a tax."

What's the point?

"We have our jobs. Our jobs are to lead. We will continue to lead. . . . We will get the job done."

With that the Republican walks up the path to a much grander front stoop than the one in Arbutus. He strides into the governor's mansion, and the big wooden door closes behind him.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company