On a triumphant return

Applause: Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is welcomed back by Republican colleagues with smiles and a standing ovation on his
first day in Congress since he was elected governor.

By Sarah Koenig
Sun Staff

November 14, 2002

WASHINGTON - Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is a little late when he walks into a House Republican conference on Capitol Hill about 10 yesterday morning. Nearly all his colleagues are already
there, and when they see him walk though the doors, it's as if the patron saint of Democrat crushers has just walked in.

The standing ovation is punctuated by shouts and high-fives. He gets a bear hug from House Speaker Dennis Hastert. The room is awash in cat-ate-the-cream smiles.

"They just went nuts," Ehrlich said when he emerged from the closed-door meeting, looking a bit dreamy. "They did bust up the room. It was neat. It was like election night. There was a
lot of raw emotion."

Outside of his hometown of Arbutus, it's hard to imagine Ehrlich coming back to a more doting crowd than this. Yesterday was his first day back in Congress since the election Nov. 5, in
which he defeated Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to become Maryland's first Republican governor in more than three decades.

Among the national election results that gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress, Ehrlich's victory appears particularly sweet for his fellow House members. Not only was
his a major GOP win in a heavily Democratic state, but it was the only major GOP win in Maryland. Republicans lost two congressional seats to Democrats C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and
Christopher Van Hollen Jr.

In addition, he is part of Congress' 1994 freshman class, a tightly knit group of lawmakers who rode in on the last Republican sweep of the House and Senate. Because they spend so
much time here, colleagues from Kentucky and California and New York and Texas followed the race in the newspapers and watched the rancorous campaign ads on television. For them,
it came to feel like a local contest. Many contributed money to his effort.

To top it off, Ehrlich defeated a Kennedy. The combination seemed to bring genuine joy to some of his colleagues yesterday.

"It is a renaissance period for the state of Maryland," said a beaming Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas. "We're so happy. He is the most popular member of the House."

But why exactly were they so happy? They did, after all, lose his seat to a Democrat. "I'm a Republican," said Rep. Richard "Doc" Hastings of Washington. "She's a Kennedy. Well?"

On seeing Maryland's Lt. Gov.-elect Michael S. Steele waiting outside the House chamber while Ehrlich darted in to cast a vote, Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma got down on all fours and
made like he was going to kiss the marble floor.

"That was just about respect and admiration," Watts said when asked whether he had lost a bet or something. "Two weeks ago, I could've kicked 'em in the shin. Now I have to be more
careful," he added, nodding to the four burly Maryland state troopers who followed Ehrlich around all day.

Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, however, did lose a bet. Yesterday afternoon as Ehrlich was walking down the Capitol steps, Hoyer was trotting up. He handed over the $20 he had
wagered on Townsend, whom he actively supported, and then ran inside. (Evidently state Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson owes Steele a bottle of scotch.)

A few moments later, Democrat Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore walked by as Ehrlich was kissing the $20 and gloating to friends. He gave Ehrlich a wide smile and a handshake and
said nothing. Less than two weeks ago, Cummings was holding news conferences denouncing Ehrlich's record and campaign tactics.

Other Democrats weighed in as well. As he ran down the hall of the Cannon House Office Building, Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, a prominent defender of President Bill Clinton during
the impeachment proceedings, caught sight of Ehrlich and yelled: "There's hope for America. For all the guys who never thought they could get elected to anything, there's hope again."

And Elmo McCloud of Prince George's County, 80, a waiter in the private House dining room, showed Ehrlich his voter registration card, marked "DEM," and said he voted for him. "I
know what kind of governor you're going to be," he said.

When he wasn't receiving congratulatory thwacks on the shoulder, Ehrlich squeezed in some work. He voted in favor of a resolution to keep funding the government until the new
Congress is sworn in early next year. And last night, he voted for House passage of the president's Homeland Security legislation.

As he waited for the bill to come to the floor, he began putting the myriad plaques and awards that cover his office walls into boxes, separating the meaningful from the ubiquitous. He
also held a private meeting about the transition team and appointments with Steele and chief of staff Steven L. Kreseski.

Outside, in the waiting area, his wife, Kendel, and their 3-year-old son, Drew, waited. Drew played a Sesame Street computer game featuring Cookie Monster, and then affixed various
lengths of tape to his mother's hands.

Later, when it became clear that Ehrlich would be stuck in Washington for longer than expected, Kendel Ehrlich decided to return with Drew to their quasi-holiday in Ocean City via the
helicopter they all arrived in in the morning.

Before Kendel Ehrlich left, House GOP Whip Tom DeLay and his wife, Christine, paid their respects in the House dining room. "We're looking for a first lady," DeLay said. "Oh, what a
win that was! ... She was a great person to beat."

DeLay said he would try to make it to Ehrlich's inauguration in mid-January. "He said he wants us to come strut our stuff in Annapolis - the whole Republican conference," he said.

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun