First lady's influence draws new attention
Kendel Ehrlich emerges as possibility to run for Sarbanes' U.S. Senate
seat; Her name also is among Steffen's e-mail contacts
By Andrew A. Green and David Nitkin
March 13, 2005
First lady Kendel Ehrlich has re-emerged as a central part of her
husband's team and as one of the state's most prominent Republicans -
even drawing attention from GOP observers as a possible candidate for
Her name surfaced immediately as one of her party's strongest potential
candidates for U.S. Senate after Friday's surprise announcement by Sen.
Paul S. Sarbanes that he would retire next year.
And later that day, her name arose in a very different setting: an
e-mail she sent to former administration aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr.,
the day before he was dismissed, telling him, "Relax. You'll be fine.
We need you."
Kendel Ehrlich has spent a quiet year tending to her newborn son and is
comfortable with the ceremonial duties of a first lady. Administration
officials say she and her husband, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., have
steered clear of giving her a major policy role, like the one President
Bill Clinton gave Hillary Rodham Clinton when he first came into office.
But the 43-year-old former prosecutor and public defender, who once
broke up with boyfriend Bob because she couldn't stand dating a
politician, has developed over the years into a sharp political player
in her own right - and a guardian of loyalty in her husband's inner
None of the 14,500 pages of e-mails and other documents the
administration released from Steffen's computer provides evidence that
Kendel Ehrlich was involved in or knew about the former aide's
activities, including his efforts to spread rumors about Mayor Martin
But the fact that Steffen, who had easy access to the highest levels of
the administration, felt the need to inform the first lady that a
Washington Post reporter was preparing an article about him is evidence
of her importance.
"I think she is a very integral part of the administration. She is out
there. She is representing him," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a
Baltimore County Democrat who has known Kendel Ehrlich for years.
Speaking on Stateline with Governor Ehrlich on WBAL-AM yesterday,
Ehrlich said his wife's response to Steffen's e-mail was entirely
"We've known Joe, obviously, he worked on our congressional staff," the
governor said. "He sent an e-mail to Kendel along the lines of, 'The
Post is doing a story,' and Kendel, as you would expect - she is not
ignorant - she would respond in the way she responded.
"It's a basic nonstory of the year," the governor said of his wife's
e-mail. "I would hope she responded in the way she did. We've known him
Her familiarity with Steffen - whose loyalty to the governor is so
strong that he said in an e-mail that he would "throw myself on the
grenade" to protect the Ehrlich administration - fits with her
behind-the-scenes role to make sure the governor's lieutenants are
committed to his agenda.
'All about loyalty'
"What I am about is, I observe and assist and assess loyalty to the
governor," Kendel Ehrlich said in 2003. "I am all about loyalty, and
Bob is, too. We are very competitive people. We both like the fight.
That is how I got hooked."
"She leaves policy to me," the governor said at the time. "But as for
personnel, the people around us, she has very strong opinions - hourly
She was the one, for example, who called James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr.
and asked him to be her husband's campaign manager for the 2002
governor's race. He stuck around after the election and, as budget
secretary, has become one of the most influential members of the
Kendel Ehrlich is known to be fiercely protective of her husband and
grows angry at those she perceives as disloyal, Hollinger said. "She is
very sensitive with things about her husband," Hollinger said.
But state Republican Party Chairman John Kane said Kendel Ehrlich's
role as a forceful advocate and a strong first lady does not extend to
involvement in government policy.
"She certainly has been an asset. He is the first one to tell you he
married up," Kane said. "I think he listens to her advice on a regular
basis. She is not involved in daily decision-making processes in the
administration. She has taken on the role of first lady, not first
Kendel Ehrlich occasionally appears by her husband's side to help him
with policy matters. She was with him when he vetoed the General
Assembly's medical malpractice reform bill in January, and she
accompanied him in the roll-out of his proposals on teenage driving
restrictions this year.
Role in crime issues
The one policy area where Kendel Ehrlich appears to have a consistent
role is criminal justice issues. Ehrlich has said that his attorney
wife has heavily influenced his thinking on how to deal with drug
crimes, and she has played a role in suggesting judicial nominees. In
2003, she addressed an orientation session for judicial nominating
commissions, which screen applicants for judgeships and refer them to
She frequently has appeared on the stump to articulate her husband's
goals and point of view, particularly in the early days of the
administration, when the governor was first encountering difficulty in
pushing his agenda through the legislature.
Since the birth of her second son, Joshua, a year ago, she has
curtailed her schedule somewhat. But her ability in a public setting -
aside from a well-publicized remark at a conference on preventing
domestic violence that she would like to shoot pop star Britney Spears
- has fueled speculation that she could run for the U.S. Senate seat
being vacated by Sarbanes.
Meghann Siwinski, spokeswoman for Kendel Ehrlich, said Friday that with
two young boys at home and a husband up for re-election, running for
Senate is the farthest thing from the first lady's mind.
But Republicans still find the possibility of her candidacy tantalizing.
"Just seeing her on the stump over the years, not only in her role as a
first lady but in her role as a fund-raiser for various charities and
helping to raise money for a variety of Republican candidates, she's
top-notch all the way," said Del. William J. Frank, a Towson Republican
who has known the Ehrlichs for years. "If she were to choose to run for
office, she'd be a terrific candidate."
Copyright © 2005, The Baltimore Sun