First lady finding her feet

by Margie Hyslop
Special to The Gazette
Aug. 8, 2003

Ehrlich aims to keep family down to earth

ANNAPOLIS -- It was clear things had changed at Government House, even before Kendel S. Ehrlich scooted through a garage-level entrance, perched her tall, trim frame on a bright yellow sofa and offered her own perspective.

"What do you think?" the first lady asked staff as she surveyed the redecorated security and waiting area known as "the troopers' room."

A butter-hued background highlighted her blonde hair and her tan, but the brocade wall covering made a keen counterpoint to the sport mules on her feet.

"Mel, you have to look at it all day," she said -- a comment meant to prod the dispatcher-receptionist into voicing her opinion.

Together, they concluded that blue sofa pillows, reflecting a stripe in the chairs, would finish the new look.

"It was a house that was ... just dark, and I like it kind of light and open," she said, explaining an aesthetic she is applying, largely through paint, drapes and upholstery, to remake the private living area that Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) used only part-time until the last two and a half of his eight years in office.

She is also working with the Government House Trust to bring that look to the public rooms of the executive mansion that is now a full-time home to her husband, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland's first Republican governor in more than 34 years, and her son, Drew, a precocious 4-year-old who, like his mother, might one day be voted "most outgoing" by his classmates.

But special status is accorded a green leather couch that shares a cozy nook with a big-screen television in the family's private quarters. Taken from the den of their Timonium townhouse to make the governor more comfortable, the sofa is the only personal furniture that made the trip to Annapolis.

Yet the Ehrlichs' move to the mansion was far from simple.

Although their 10-year marriage began as Ehrlich campaigned for the first of his four terms in Congress, the transition from full-time prosecutor to working mother and now first lady has been a "whirlwind," Kendel Ehrlich said.

Roughly 18 months have passed since her husband decided to challenge Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in a race that many thought would be an easy win for the likable daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy in a majority-Democrat state.

Although few knew it when Bob Ehrlich, 45, was weighing his chances, Kendel Ehrlich, 41, said she was an early, strong proponent of his entering the race "absent any objective facts."

"I just thought it was his time, for a lot of reasons," she said. "The Democratic candidate was perceived to be weak. ... Bob had never lost, his particular persona and way was needed by the state at a time when the past administration had put the state in fiscal problems, and people were looking at leadership differently post-9/11."

Like her husband, the former Kendel Sibiski is a lawyer and the child of a salesman. She, a graduate of the University of Delaware, earned her law degree from the University of Baltimore. He, a graduate of Princeton, earned his law degree from Wake Forest University.

Both were varsity athletes and team captains (she, in lacrosse at Baltimore County's Dulaney Valley High School; he, in football at Baltimore's Gilman School and at Princeton).

That may have helped her keep a game face last year when the going got tough.

While helping her husband wage the political fight of his life, she grieved privately the loss of her mother, who died right before Bob Ehrlich announced he would run for governor; helped her sister care for their ailing father; and underwent back surgery for a severely herniated disc.

After her husband won the election, Kendel Ehrlich spent four days in the hospital being treated for pneumonia and even more time recovering.

"It was a hard time to take it easy -- that was the most difficult of all," she said.

During the six months that her husband has been governor and five months that they have lived in the mansion, she has returned to swinging a golf club, adjusted to jogging with a state trooper alongside on foot or bicycle, spoken to groups and entertained at least 120 people two nights per week.

She also tries to limit using a babysitter to 25 hours a week and joined a local pool (at Mears Marina) to give Drew, and herself, normal social interaction beyond the mansion fence.

And while she has gladly given up cooking to professionals ("We do eat leftovers -- everything here is great!"), she replaced a tiny refrigerator in the family "butler's pantry" with a large side-by-side model so that "Drew could get his drinks and so that he does not start asking for everything from someone other than his mother."

Both fridge doors are covered with family photos, drawings by Drew and a funky fortune-teller magnet that the first lady jokingly claims the family used to decide whether Dad would run for governor.

"When you are raising a 4-year-old as you were not raised, that's a little different, but we are determined that we are going to live our lives," she said. "It's a total management job, but we have a lot of help to do it."

Still, she said, it is important in her role not to "stretch yourself so far you are not able to accomplish much."

With that in mind, Kendel Ehrlich is using a collaborative approach to tackle three initiatives outside the mansion: curbing drug and alcohol abuse, promoting education and helping the Maryland Commission for Women create a women's history museum.

Each, she said, is an extension of interests she developed while working in the courtroom and as counsel to a company that provided education and supervision for juvenile offenders.

"People who end up in the criminal justice system are typically dropouts and drug and alcohol abusers," she said. "So in order to keep people on track to become accomplished citizens, it's important [for them to avoid addictions and to get an] education."

Establishing a women's history museum has long been a goal of the commission, but the first lady wants to get the project under way outside the already strained state budget by getting private donations.

"I just want to be involved in fund-raising and site location and allow the women's commission to do what they originally envisioned with programming," including hosting seminars on work and health issues as well as domestic violence -- a problem she said she saw too often in court, where many victims returned asking leniency for their abusers.

She is still working part-time as a liaison for Comcast, trying to make the cable and telecommunications provider "the education company" for school systems in Maryland through its high-speed Internet service and a technology training program for teachers aimed at making maximum use of school computer labs.

But the first lady said she sees no conflict of interest with her work because Comcast contracts with local school systems, not with the state.

Asked if she acts as an adviser to the governor, Kendel Ehrlich said that her opinion obviously is important to him, but that she advises him on only one issue -- loyalty within his administration.

"It is the success and promotion of the governor that allows them to keep their jobs for eight years," she said. "If I see something that is not meeting that objective, I get involved. Other than that, I don't. I'm not a policy person ... not a strategist regarding legislation."

And, despite being urged to make her own run for office, she said she would not consider becoming a candidate while her husband is governor.

"Part of this job is being a role model for young women. ... I tell them you don't know where you'll end up to be an example for someone else," she said. "I'm real comfortable with where I am, my priority with the family and Drew ... and I think the balance that I've struck will remain for the first term."

Even the governor -- who "never used to be much of a vacation person" and views the responsibilities of his job as "incredibly important" -- now realizes that the family needs to take an occasional break, she said.

To celebrate their anniversary last month, the first couple spent a long weekend in Las Vegas, a city they like for its warm weather and opportunities to gamble.

Specifically, the governor "likes to shoot craps," his wife said, her voice hoarse from a cold that she thinks they both picked up on the airplane. But he holds out for $5 and $10 tables. And, of course, she said, he gambles "conservatively."

During the anniversary trip, she said, the governor came home about $200 ahead.

Copyright © 2003 The Gazette - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Privacy Statement