'This will always be home'

Kendel Ehrlich readies for a more private life in Annapolis

By WENDI WINTERS, For The Capital
Maryland's first lady bounded into her private sitting room recently, looking like a million-dollar winner.

Kendel S. Ehrlich was in the middle of a busy public schedule: a whirlwind of open houses, holiday celebrations and parties to thank supporters from her husband's unsuccessful campaign for re-election.

Instead of sackcloth and ashes, Mrs. Ehrlich was dressed in an upbeat ensemble. She sported a potent pistachio green wool cropped jacket with welted seams, a matching turtleneck set off with a golden bead necklace, a man-size watch on a wide yellow leather band, and slim ivory trousers.

Settling down on an overstuffed, patterned couch, she said the Ehrlich family is "staying in the neighborhood for Drew's school and Josh's preschool that he attends two days a week." Drew, 7, is a second-grader at NAPS.

The family bought a home in an Annapolis ZIP code, near Crownsville.

"It has easy access in and out of town, to Baltimore and Washington. It's important for his work, since we're still deciding what to do," she said.

The hunt for a new home was conducted and concluded quickly once the election results came in.

"Immediately after Bob conceded the election, my mind began to prepare for the transition," she said.

One of her first post-election acts was to renew her Sam's Club card. "My re-entry is official!" she laughed.

Telling the kids they were moving wasn't tough, either.

"I told Drew the only thing that would change would be the house," the first lady said. "I didn't make too much of a big deal one way or the other. Elections are risky - always a risky business."

She said the family loves Annapolis, and the city returns that affection.

"I'm incredibly proud of the past four years."

She recalled special evenings in the Governor's Mansion with former governors William Donald Schaefer and Marvin Mandel as guests. Mrs. Ehrlich also had the opportunity to climb to the crown of the cupola atop the state capitol and look out over the city she loves.

"This will always be home for us," she said. "We did it right. Bob is leaving with incredibly high approval ratings and we're just proud."

She said the past four years were like being cast members on "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

"I was always the character Mary Tyler Moore played on TV," she said, rolling her eyes.

Leaving their mark

Mrs. Ehrlich said the Governor's Mansion "is in fabulous shape. We've done great things for this place."

She pointed out that the home's bathrooms were renovated and a tub was installed in the third-floor bath. In the private areas, there was "a lot of painting and warming up."

The Victorian Room, not redone since the Hughes administration, was redecorated. In the Federal Reception Room, the bright green wall color was replaced with a green moire fabric. Elegant plaster moldings were installed around the doorways and windows.

She said they also did a lot downstairs to make the work space more practical and user-friendly for the staff.

The first lady credited Elaine Rice Bachmann, curator of the Maryland Commission on Artistic Property of the Maryland State Archives, with guiding her to making appropriate choices when making changes in the building.

"It's a wonderful home," Mrs. Ehrlich said. "We're incredibly lucky to be here. The people who occupy this house make it what it is. We made it a warm, festive place."

She said the family has hosted more than 30,000 visitors in the past four years.

Once the holiday festivities are over, Mrs. Ehrlich will turn her attention to packing and moving.

"We moved here from a townhouse, and since then have made a few purchases," she said. "We have things in storage, and we've accumulated enough jackets and hats for life. People are always giving Bob hats."

After the move, her next task will be to sit for her official portrait. She's already looking at portfolios of Maryland artists and is close to commissioning a well-known artist in the area. Mrs. Ehrlich plans to include her children in the painting.

One of the issues still undecided is when, or whether, she'll re-enter the work force.

"My priority is getting everybody secure in the new routine next year," she said. "I don't know that I'll adequately have time to practice law in the traditional sense. My priority is our children. I always loved being a lawyer, but there may be other opportunities, as well."

Looking back, she's certain of what makes her most proud:

"Opening this home to so many people, keeping my children so completely normal and steady, and my work with education," she said. "I am all about educating kids about alcohol abuse and prevention, obesity and child safety."

But there are always regrets.

"I would have liked to do more work on the Teen Advisory Council that I chaired and other health issues," she said.

Mrs. Ehrlich noted that her younger son, 2-year-old Josh, was only the third baby born to a sitting Maryland governor.

Life in the Governor's Mansion was like living in a fishbowl.

"Our personalities were built for this, but I'm feeling more of my freedom," she said. "Freedom outside the fishbowl will be more than I realize. Now, I'm on a constant interview. I go everywhere with bodyguards. It's not for everybody and it's not easy."

The four years also haven't been without controversy. One incident that still reverberates around the Internet was a comment Mrs. Ehrlich's made on Oct. 3, 2003, during a speech about domestic violence at Hood College in Frederick.

"You know, really, if I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would," was the slip of the tongue that made national headlines.

Mrs. Ehrlich apologized for her remark at the time.

"It was not my most artful moment, my most articulate moment," she said with a half-grin. As she reflected on Ms. Spears' past few weeks in the tabloids partying in risque outfits with Paris Hilton, the grin spread across her face. "... But the points have been made."

The Ehrlichs may be moving, but Mrs. Ehrlich promised they won't disappear.

"Within five years, we'll be in public service somehow," she said. "Maybe sooner. This life, when you get used to it, there's an ebb and flow. You get flexible. You learn to take opportunities when they come up."

The thing she'll miss the most is the people.

"There's two sets of families in this house. One includes the troopers and the staff. The other one is the second-floor family - my staff and many people who've been with us for many years," she said, her eyes reddening.

Though it's an unpaid volunteer job, she feels Maryland's first lady position is relevant.

"Today, it's more important than ever," she said. "We need a good role model."

Wendi Winters is a freelance writer living on the Broadneck Peninsula.

Published December 21, 2006, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright © 2006 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.