Kendel Ehrlich's excellent adventure
No more grocery shopping. Lunch with Bon Jovi. Bowling with President Bush. And, oh yeah - working to make Maryland believe in Bob as much as she does.
By Patricia Meisol
Sun Staff

July 27, 2003

Kendel Ehrlich pauses on her way into the Sheraton Hotel in Columbia and bends her head to listen to an aide before she gives a breakfast speech to the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. Then she takes a deep breath and strides ahead, painfully aware that she is out of bed far too early for an Ehrlich.

It's a rare sunny day in a spring of rain, and Ehrlich, first lady of Maryland, wears a lime green suit, the hem four, maybe five, inches above her knees. She's tanned from a six-day vacation with her governor-husband, and stockingless. The white of her pearls shows off her tan and her blond hair. Her blue eyes flash. At 5-feet-9, she walks into the room with her shoulders back, as if she's on a runway, the wispy flowered scarf at her neck flying behind her.

Only somebody self-assured - and a model's size - could get away with a skirt so short that she tugs on it when she sits.

Minutes after her entrance, the room fills with Ehrlich's trademark laugh, a high-pitched echo of ha-has. Men in dark suits rise to greet her. She moves around a table of Rouse Co. executives, shaking each hand and laughing her laugh.

It's a bright laugh, a confident one - a friend says it personifies her, honest and open - and Ehrlich, as she has at every stop on a spring tour, lets the audience into her new life as readily as she invites them to visit the public rooms in the governor's mansion.

"Hi, everybody," she booms when she reaches the podium, her voice warm and her gaze so penetrating you think she's speaking directly to you.

Like the trial lawyer she used to be, Kendel Ehrlich thinks about how to sway a jury, and she is keenly aware that the jury now is the people of Maryland. Her husband, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the first Republican governor elected in 36 years, faltered in his initial bid to raise money from a slots bill and now, with a harrowing budget gap, massive cuts are looming.

At the podium, she carries a script and a black marker in her long, thin fingers, but she never glances down, because it makes her uncomfortable. Long ago, she realized the value of eye contact and she loves to maintain it. She has ground to cover.

Her ultimate message, today and every day, is that it takes time to change things in a state long controlled by Democrats.

But she knows people are more interested in change on a more intimate scale, and she wants to deliver.

"Now," she says, "for the good stuff."

"I don't clean," she tells the audience. "I don't cook." Overnight she was transformed from a harried mother running to the Giant and Sam's Club "like everybody else" to a first lady, with a driver and a personal chef asking what she'd like for dinner.

"Well," she said, "what do you have?"

"What do you want?"

She pauses while they laugh. "The house is a privilege," she says. "Thank you."

In her speech this day, and in others from April to June, she elaborates on her topic: How my life has changed.

She tells about the "incredible invite," the February weekend President and Laura Bush had the Ehrlichs to Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains. "They said casual. I didn't know if that meant Palm Beach casual, or casual. They mean jeans and T-shirts. I took a lot of pantsuits."

And lunch with rock star Jon Bon Jovi. When she saw the crowds part to let him pass, she knew he was somebody famous. "Thank goodness for name tags," she says. "And let me tell you, he's got great hair, great teeth, and he's a very humble guy."

It's a new lifestyle, all right. She had two days' notice that former President Bill Clinton would join the governor in the Maryland tent at the Preakness Stakes. But Ehrlich never dreamed Clinton would sit next to her for lunch. Didn't he remember that Bob voted for his impeachment? She had heard that if Clinton thinks you don't like him, he homes in on you. He's very engaging, she says, and he loved her wide-brimmed straw hat with yellow roses.

On the down side of her new life: "It's a little bit of a bummer that the mansion is kinda isolated, not like the old townhouse in Timonium where you could go outside and find a friend for [son] Drew."

And there's the zoo effect. People peer through the mansion's iron gates at the toys and the lounge chairs where she and Drew, 4, play and have lunch.

"The more we are outside - if it ever gets nicer - people will 'get over' that we are out and about a lot," she says. Ahem, she adds, laughing, when the audience is in Annapolis, "I hope the Annapolis Historical Society is not too upset about the toys out there."

Somehow, the plastic on the lawn seems less tacky when you see how much Kendel Ehrlich cares about having a normal life. Her obvious awe at her new position seems less naive when you see how she pairs it with the message she wants you to hear.

Take the weekend at Camp David.

"It's very funny," she tells an audience of mostly elderly Republicans at Johns Hopkins University's faculty club. "You get up there, you get the call, 'Do you want to work out with the president?' 'We'll be right over.' And there he is, working out with his brother, Marvin."

The Ehrlichs had fun, mostly. She confirms that, yes, as her husband has boasted, she beat the president at bowling.

But she couldn't help but notice on that weekend, when so much of the world was protesting a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq, that the president was amazingly calm. She and Bush discussed why he doesn't read newspapers and found they had something in common. His certitude made a huge impression on her.

Bush took information and he made a decision, she says. "This is leadership." And then, she gets to the point: "In my unbiased way, I believe my husband is very much like that. He has to make unpopular decisions."

She calls it cruel, the process of becoming governor. Before they could figure out the telephones, the swearing-in was upon them. There was the coldest inauguration day, the rush a week later to get out a budget and draft bills for the first legislative session, the sorry state of the mansion's private quarters, and, right away, a state emergency.

There they were, on the drive home from Camp David in the middle of February's biggest snowstorm, plows clearing the road in front of them, when, as Ehrlich tells a group of high-powered women in Baltimore, she turned to her husband and said: "Aren't you supposed to do something? Like, declare a state of emergency?"

"Oh," he said. "Yeah."

As the legislative season ended in April and Kendel Ehrlich took to the road, her importance to her husband's administration became clear.

Some in the governor's party wondered if he had worked hard enough for his slots bill, or whether his staff was up to the job. Their disappointment was crushing. Joking about her new lifestyle and reminding people why her husband had been elected, Ehrlich offered a daily message of hope to the forlorn and a reminder to Republicans of the need for loyalty "no matter what."

The governor is holding his head high, she says. We are holding our heads high. Bob is committed to no new taxes, and he had a plan to pay for things, she says.

It's a shame, she says, with a trace of bitterness, that one person had so much say this year. She's referring to the speaker of the House of Delegates, Michael Busch, whose questioning of the governor's slots proposal brought it down, leaving no source of money short of taxes to close the budget gap.

"We didn't get it, but that's OK," she says, adding that the administration did get a start on charter schools and made hundreds of appointments. Change takes time.

When a woman in the audience asks, "What about the governor's promise to [fund] education?" she urges her, too, to stop reading newspapers and to complain to Speaker Busch.

Ehrlich had grown accustomed to answering questions during the campaign: Her husband needed to go where people didn't know him, so she became his messenger to the GOP faithful, often with running mate Michael Steele. It worked: People who paid $500 a ticket to see Bob Ehrlich weren't disappointed when Kendel showed up. Some were happy.

It was a coincidence that her schedule was booked solid just as the legislative session ended --- it had been set up months earlier when she was new and trying to please - and she took advantage of the timing. Nobody asked her to defend the governor during these appearances - she just did it.

It isn't a new role; she's been speaking on behalf of her husband since they were married in 1993. But now she's stepping out before statewide audiences, hoping to convert them. Her freshness, her outspokenness, her poking fun at the trappings of power make her an instant hit.

Just how long Kendel Ehrlich will enjoy such warm receptions is anyone's guess. As a First Lady who wants to talk about more than decorating the mansion or promoting pet causes, who wants to talk politics, she's not what everyone expects, or wants. Some in her audiences are taken aback by her partisanship. And some, including Busch, one of her favorite targets, note that the more active she or any other first lady becomes, the more she will be judged - praised or criticized.

But for now, on a sunny spring day in Columbia before a charmed audience - "Isn't she great?!" coos one onlooker - she's enjoying the kind of honeymoon with voters that many politicians can only envy.

Kendel Sibiski was a Democrat and a public defender in Anne Arundel County when she met Bob Ehrlich, a Republican state delegate. She was less bothered by his party affiliation than by his choice of job. After three months, she ditched him. She had met a great guy, she told friends, but it's going nowhere: He's a politician. He responded with a list of reasons why she should marry him, the most convincing being, "Consider the person, not the job."

During her husband's four terms in Congress, Ehrlich met dedicated, honest people and overcame her cynicism about politicians. From the beginning, she spoke her mind, and she's been at her husband's side, serving as what she calls an "assist." She's his last-minute stand-in - she took the heat for him in front of hundreds of people during one campaign stop, telling them, "he owes me big-time on this one" - and his cheerleader. She was there in a hostile House committee room last February, positioning herself to face him while he made his case for slots legislation. (A historic moment, it turns out, when he accused Speaker Busch of racism and, some say, doomed his plan.)

Frances Glendening, the first lady from 1995 to 2001, was also a lawyer and key strategist for her then-husband, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, but she kept her outside job. With Bob Ehrlich a Republican in a predominantly Democratic state, the stakes are higher now, and the goals of the first lady are different. Kendel Ehrlich has given up a fulltime career and obviously enjoys taking an active role in her husband's.

"I'm his biggest fan," she says. "I feel a slight responsibility for him being in this position. I was a huge advocate [for his candidacy]. It was a huge step for him. He loves politics and he had to be prepared to lose. We fought five times harder every day when we left home than the Democrats. The odds were against him, although I always thought he was going to win.

"Has the monster been created?" she asks, referring to herself. "Obviously so. It's worked, for whatever reason. Maybe we like being around each other. On the campaign, they always asked me to be there because he felt more comfortable." It might have been different, she adds, if son Drew wasn't so easygoing.

Those around the governor say Kendel and Bob Ehrlich are mirror images of each other. "She fully understands what I want to accomplish," the governor says. "She has my back."

Many people, including the governor, think she can deliver his message better than he can. She demurs. There is nothing better than hearing it from the horse's mouth, she says. But maybe it's because she laughs a lot. Maybe she uses simpler language.

Or maybe she's being herself, and people respond to that. She knows she's effective. A lot of her liberal friends have been converted. She says she can see in people's eyes what they are thinking:

"If she's married to him, he can't be that bad."

Cross her, though, and she'll put you on ice.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, learned that. As Ehrlich explains, her husband's campaign hadn't endorsed anyone for comptroller out of respect for Schaefer, so when the former governor started appearing in television ads for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Ehrlich was upset. The next time she saw Schaefer, she wasn't her "normal friendly self."

Eventually, they made up. Schaefer says Ehrlich is interested in helping people, and that made him like her right off the bat. She didn't even check her calendar, he says, when he asked her to help with a program to feed the hungry. "She isn't a phony," he says. "She's dainty, tough and sweet. Smart as a whip. She's got real class."

The press of people who lobby Ehrlich to spare their programs from being cut is one measure of how she is perceived. She doesn't blame them, but she doesn't help them. "Go see Chip," she says, referring to state budget chief James V. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. She laughs, thinking of all the people saying, "Kendel told me to call ... "

Both Ehrlichs take pains to say that she isn't involved in policy, that he is the leader, a lesson learned perhaps from Bill Clinton, who got in trouble for suggesting that voters would get "two for one" if they elected him because his wife, Hillary, would be so involved.

"What I am about is, I observe and assist and assess loyalty to the governor," Kendel Ehrlich says. "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 says, "but as for personnel, the people around us, she has very strong opinions - hourly opinions."

It's been decades since Marylanders have seen such a happy marriage in the governor's mansion, and the Ehrlichs know people are attracted to them because of their relationship.

Hardly a day goes by that the governor doesn't boast about his wife. He's called her Kendel "The Hammer" Ehrlich, for closing the deal on his campaign manager, and "Mary Sunshine," for the chief optimist role she played in his campaign, even covering her ears, Woody Allen-style, to block bad news. And in a bow to her gifts with a crowd, he sometimes calls her a "true profit center."

Not only did she help deflate anger over her husband's first bout with the legislature, but she is helping him stay in the good graces of Schaefer, whom the governor needs to sign off on state spending. Schaefer continues to hold his famously tart tongue when she's around, and when the six-month honeymoon he had promised the governor ended, she brought him a coconut pie, which both jokingly called a bribe.

If her role as defensive coordinator grows, the governor risks appearing vulnerable. Also, the first lady may be an adoring wife, but she knows when she is being used as a foil and can give it back to her husband in spades.

The day they moved into Government House, the Ehrlichs showed people around while movers unloaded furniture from vans. She was wearing sweat pants, a scruffy Naval Academy sweat shirt and knee-high boots.

"Why are you wearing those boots?" the governor teased. "You haven't moved a thing!"

Said she, her big eyes flashing, "I haven't seen you around here all week."

It was Kendel Ehrlich who stopped reading newspapers first. It was in the fall, when she became unnerved by press accounts of the campaign. "It's not personal to The Sun," she tells a Republican audience, it's about the game plan. "It is weird to have a game plan and then have people comment on it - usually incorrectly."

After the inauguration, her husband decided there was something to her philosophy and he, too, stopped reading the papers. Her discussion with President Bush at Camp David confirmed her instinct.

Two big issues on the Ehrlich agenda - drug and alcohol addiction and help for the disabled - are there partly because of Kendel; for years, she's been telling her husband stories that have left him intimately familiar with the human and economic costs of these issues. It's the same for spouse abuse; he talks about his wife's frustration watching women come to the courthouse hand-in-hand with their abusers to drop charges against them.

Ehrlich doesn't try out all her ideas with her husband. Who knows what she's been talking about with Nancy Grasmick, the state education secretary; Ehrlich says the two have been joined at the hip lately. The other day, she had Gary Vikan, the director of the Walters Art Museum, walk through the mansion and before he left, there was a plan for Walters treasures to tour the state and a committee created to examine art in the mansion.

"Kendel doesn't need to have Bob around to make decisions, nor he, her," says her sister, Kim Mudge of Baltimore, a teacher. "A lot of things they do talk about, but they are very confident with each other and in each others' decisions."

She expects to be the messenger for whatever program her husband unveils on drug and alcohol addiction, which were often factors in the crimes she handled as a prosecutor and public defender. The governor says she will be involved in policy on this issue because she's so thoughtful about it.

"A 28-day program for heroin addicts won't cut it," she told an audience of community volunteers recently. "All the parts have to kick in on this project - insurance, churches, community. This is a result-oriented administration. There are many good ideas out there, if we can get them together."

Ehrlich could be in a position to change the role of first lady.

"She is also coming in at a different time, and anything she does may be better [than her predecessors did]," says state Sen. Paula Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs a Senate committee on health and education. "She's young, vibrant, smart, certainly connects with people and, with her background, she could probably offer a lot," says Hollinger, a friend of the Ehrlichs. But, she says, "It's early, and she's got a young child."

The role she's playing might be expected to generate some heat, but so far it's hard to find a negative word about Ehrlich; even the subject of her commentary is unruffled. Speaker Busch, who used to tease her about being a Democrat when she was dating Bob Ehrlich, calls her "exceptional in her own right, a very talented lady who has a lot of good ideas and is not afraid to debate them." She should be out there supporting her husband's ideas, he says, and in the interest of debate, he doesn't mind taking criticism for his.

The only complaint involves her part-time consulting job for Comcast, the cable giant. An advocacy group, Progressive Maryland, wants the attorney general to investigate whether the governor had a conflict when he vetoed a tax increase for companies including Comcast.

She says she never talked to her husband about it. The Comcast job has her setting up computer training programs for teachers. A public defender for five years and a part-time prosecutor for four years until 2001, Ehrlich doesn't miss trial work, she says, and has discovered that a legal background allows her endless possibilities. She won't say what she's paid, but adds she'll evaluate her progress at the end of the year to decide whether to stay.

Meanwhile, she has taken to more traditional first-lady duties, such as raising an endowment for the mansion and giving luncheons for spouses of lawmakers. Ehrlich is also pushing for a women's museum, the first in any state. It would be a forum for issues like spouse abuse.

Weekly, she and the governor entertain 60 to 80 people, and they usually work different sides of the room. On any night, she knows which guest voted for her husband and who needs to be wooed.

She hasn't forgotten her girlfriends, either. Four weeks into the governorship, she invited 80 of them over for a fajita party. She wanted them to see where her phone was, and where she would be standing when they called, so if they didn't call, they had only themselves to blame.

She's still learning to use the levers of power. A visit to the set of Ladder 49 in Baltimore to meet actor John Travolta - which she had hoped would be a reward for her staff - bombed when the movie's producers shunted aside the gaggle of staffers and friends she had brought along.

Travolta poked fun at her gift, too. "Yet another tchotchke!" he exclaimed as television cameras drew close to examine the silver Maryland plate. She laughed as she handed him a CD of Saturday Night Fever to sign. Her girlfriends had to be satisfied with her blow-by-blow report, delivered amid laughter at the cold, wet and muddy location. The next time she wants to meet somebody famous, she says, she'll invite him or her to dinner at the mansion.

She and the governor often unwind until 2 a.m. in front of the tube, relaxing from the intense world outside. "The mayor is not happy, but The Wire is incredible television," she tells a Baltimore audience. "We shouldn't be watching television, but ... ."

Dick Van Dyke Show reruns are her favorite. Perry Mason, the TV lawyer, was her hero - "I can do that," she told herself as a child growing up in Lutherville, the youngest of three. Her parents, Jane and Walt Sibiski, doted on her. Her father, like her husband's father, was a salesman. So sure about a career in criminal justice that she majored in it at the University of Delaware, Ehrlich still had to convince her dad. He thought she should go into sales because the money was better. After a long talk, in which she promised to work to pay for law school, she won his blessing.

Her father insisted on treating people with fairness and respect, sister Kim says. His influence may have been on view the day Kendel was at a Republican gathering and saw people stepping on a floor mat with Hillary Clinton's face on it. She picked it up and threw it in the trash, a story recounted on Chip Franklin's WBAL radio show.

Her sister also says that no matter the circumstance, Ehrlich is always gracious. This was revealed in the way she handled a seeming slight from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, one of her husband's potential rivals. The two were the featured attractions at a kickoff for Harvest for the Hungry in Baltimore.

The mayor arrived late and sat down five chairs away from Ehrlich, never acknowledging her even when she inched forward on her seat to try to catch his attention. She spoke first, but before she took the podium, she walked over to the mayor to offer her hand in greeting.

Today, three months after the legislative session ended, you can still see the fire in Ehrlich's eyes when she talks about how the Democrats stonewalled her husband's legislative plan. But she's tempered her remarks now, rarely calling the speaker by name, and her message is more subtle. Now the focus is on the governor's integrity, his refusal to raise taxes to solve the budget deficit, on the qualities of leadership.

"Let me tell you," she says, "my husband is in a difficult position being governor at this time, but we are going to work through it. He is very hopeful there will be new revenues without taxes. Meantime, people are protected ... "

The budget reality is harsh, she says. Even though there will be cuts, "my husband is not anti-government, but in favor of efficiency and effectiveness. That's what everybody wants."

Some say Kendel Ehrlich remains a Democrat at heart, and she says she accepts that, whatever it means. They are talking about her compassion for others which, among other things, has made her an idol to a boys' home in Highlandtown, where one teen-ager even pinned her photo next to those of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Shania Twain in his bedroom. The only person from either campaign to show up for a ribbon-cutting at the home, a Jesuit project to help academically talented boys, Ehrlich spent the whole time talking with the kids. Six months later, she invited them to the governor's box for the Orioles' Opening Day.

In many ways, Ehrlich is a contradiction: sexy, sassy and tough, commanding enough on the talk circuit that she fields questions about immigration policy and why France and Germany didn't support the president on Iraq, but also a lawyer who stays home to raise her son and who doesn't mind starring in fashion shows if she can raise money for her husband.

There was some snickering last fall when she appeared in a fund-raiser fashion show attended by 1,000 women at Martin's West. How unhip for a professional woman, a lawyer! What message did she want to convey?

But Ehrlich had attended a fashion show for Israel bonds and seen how much women loved it, and she decided to do one for her husband if he ever ran for governor. She had expected to make a cameo, but she became the star when a dress designer at Octavia, the Baltimore fashion retailer, saw she was a size 8, and she looked great in a black number with Swarovski crystals running down each side. Her walk down the runway, an apparent first for a Maryland political fund-raiser, generated $125,000.

This fall she plans to model before a crowd twice as big, and she's proud of her fund-raising efforts.

Regularly, people ask her whether she's more like Laura Bush or Hillary Clinton. She puts herself somewhere between the two. There's no role model for the job, she believes, because it's driven by personality.

Some people think of a lawyer and a mom and think Democrat, she says. Republican women have their own image, she says, and she's breaking the mold.

The press has a hard time pegging her husband, too. She notes that the governor signed a law legalizing marijuana for medical purposes over White House objections and angered Democrats by refusing to close a corporate tax loophole.

"We bring our own style," she says.

Her clothes - suits in shades of periwinkle, turquoise, lime and deep coral - reflect her bold personality. The lime green suit she picked up years ago outlet shopping when she worked in Annapolis. If she looks jazzier lately, it's because she's been shopping online for shoes, color-coordinated to go with her old suits.

If she could, Kendel Ehrlich, a former co-captain of the Dulaney Valley High School lacrosse team, would live in sweat pants. In a throwback to her old life, she did sneak out to the Giant one day last month to look for new foods for Drew. The lines were long and it was rainy. "What was I thinking?" she said.

Her biggest problem is her schedule, though her day is more predictable than it was when her husband was in Congress. She tries not to hire a baby sitter for more than 25 hours a week, including evenings, and now that she's switched to summer hours, she saves Tuesdays and Thursdays for Drew. They've joined the Mears Marina pool down the street from the mansion.

She used to plan her life. Her work in the legal system was very important to her, and she thought she wanted to be a judge. She gave that up, she now jokes, when she married a Republican - until he became governor, judges were appointed by Democrats. From watching her husband's successes, she's learned to make the most of opportunities.

"You can do anything, if you make good choices," she tells middle schoolers at yet another talk.

She may not have an agenda, as Hillary Clinton did, but could she have her own political career?

It wouldn't cross her mind while her husband is in public life, she says.

But after that, Kendel Ehrlich says, you never know.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun