EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the March 28, 2005, issue of National Review.
Anne Arundel County, Md. President Bush is at a community college, microphone in hand. This is one of his “real people” events, and the focus is education, plus jobs. Bush is a kind of talk-show host–Oprah for a morning. Onstage with him are the president of the college, a local hospital administrator, the real people (two inspiring students) . . . and “the governor’s here, how ’bout that?”
The governor is Bob Ehrlich, a 47-year-old Republican. He says to Bush, “I want some extra credit for wearing my W tie today.” His pink tie is decorated with the president’s key initial, a souvenir from the ‘04 campaign. “Hot item,” Bush says. But “I don’t know about the pink.” Later, he refers to Ehrlich as Bobby. “They call you Bobby?” he checks. “Absolutely, Mr. President,” says Ehrlich. “You can call me anything you want . . .”
The Republican party calls him one of its favorite governors. A former football player, he looks a bit like a Ken doll, and thinks like a scholar of the American Enterprise Institute. He’s also a canny pol. Three years ago, he won unexpectedly in one of the most Democratic states in the Union. And he is remarkably frank about his principles and beliefs.
For example, can you imagine a governor who, on a radio talk show, dismisses multiculturalism as “bunk” and “crap”? You have one in Ehrlich. Repeatedly, he has called the Democratic party on racial dirty-dealing. And he scolds the business community, saying they lack spine, that they won’t support their own interests, that, indeed, they suffer from “Patty Hearst syndrome.” “You identify with your captors,” he told an assembly of businessmen and their lobbyists last year. “We need you to influence votes. We need you to be dangerous.”
The governor’s wife is not shy, either. Kendel Ehrlich is a former public defender and prosecutor who in 2003 addressed a conference on domestic violence. Talking about the effect of popular culture on girls in particular, she quipped that she ought to “shoot” Britney Spears. She apologized for this unfortunate way of expressing herself, but she also won many fans among parents nationwide.
Ehrlich is discussing her, back at home in Annapolis, following the Bush show, when the First Lady comes in, right on cue. She’s holding their year-old son, Joshua, who has an older brother, Drew. The governor tells her, ‘The president said, ‘Two more kids.’” Responds Mrs. Ehrlich, “Clearly he doesn’t know how old I am.” (North of 40.)
The governor–who pronounces his name “Er-lick,” not “Air-lick”–grew up outside Baltimore, in a just-folks community. He would later represent similar communities, in the Maryland house and in Congress. “My congressional district was the definition of Reagan Democrat,” he says. “The Democrats had a 70-30, or 65-35, advantage, and it was as safe a Republican seat as you’re ever going to find, at least for me.” When he ran for governor, he notes, he won in places where, only a generation ago, “people would spit if they heard the word ‘Republican.’”
He went to Princeton, where he did his undergraduate thesis on Solzhenitsyn, and later to Wake Forest Law School. Among his models are Churchill (“He stood on principle, and he was willing to lose”), Reagan, and Jack Kemp. “As an athlete, I was drawn to him, and I loved his inclusive message”–the assertion that the Republican party should be available and attractive to all. Ehrlich describes his views as “a mixture of conservatism and libertarianism.”
He was elected to Congress in the smash Republican year of 1994, and eight years later decided to run for governor. It was no sure thing: First, there hadn’t been a Republican governor elected in 36 years (and he was Agnew). Second, the Democratic contender was a heavyweight: Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a daughter of RFK. Many people considered her a shoo-in for the Governor’s Mansion, and she was even talked about–briefly, a little fancifully–as a running mate for Gore in 2000. This was when she was merely lieutenant governor.
As Ehrlich explains, he had a “terrific setup” in Congress: safe seat, plum committee, a leadership post, an easy commute between district and Capitol Hill. “I had it made, could have stayed there a long time, done my thing.” But he took a risk, running for governor. Among the challenges was money: “When you’re on a [nearly] 40-year losing streak, your fundraising base tends to dry up.” But Ehrlich wound up outraising KKT. Another challenge was uniting the state GOP (such as it was). Some conservatives didn’t like him–he is a self-described “moderate” on abortion–but he’d say, “I’m as good as you get.” They signed on. Ehrlich beat KKT by four points.
He had campaigned unapologetically, against gun control, against increasing the minimum wage. He prides himself on consistency, and the credibility it brings: He has been the same, he says, as Delegate Ehrlich, as Congressman Ehrlich, and as Governor Ehrlich. He does not necessarily tailor his message to different audiences. He says what he thinks, hoping to persuade those he can.
Going for governor, he campaigned robustly in black precincts and other areas “where Ellen had lost huge.” Who’s Ellen? Ellen Sauerbrey, the Republican nominee in 1994 and 1998. The first time, she was the victim of voting irregularities (ballot fraud, to put it more plainly). The second time, she was the victim of racial dirty tricks, as practiced consummately by the Democratic operative Bob Shrum. As Ehrlich says, “the use of race was spectacular, it was offensive, it was divisive, and it was successful.”
In his own contest, he would ask voters to send ‘em a message: “The first time the race card is unsuccessful will be the last time it’s played. But you have to make it unsuccessful. Because as long as it’s successful, they will play it.” Ehrlich won only 15 percent of blacks, but he had been unafraid, and made some inroads. Thinking of recent electoral history, he says, “American politics is healthier with Bob Shrum sidelined.”
Ehrlich’s running mate was Michael Steele. “My lieutenant governor is very threatening,” says Ehrlich–threatening to white liberal Democrats, for Steele is black and, like Ehrlich, a Reaganite, Kempite Republican. The governor cites an editorial run by the Baltimore Sun two days before the election: “They denigrated me, of course, and then they got to Mike, and in a few words showed the world what they are.” Here was a guy with an abundance of experience and talent–Ehrlich recites a list–and the Sun wrote, “[Steele] brings little to the team but the color of his skin.” That, says Ehrlich, “was a perfect expression of how they view the world.”
The governor has thought deeply about the GOP and race. Facing black voters, “white Republicans start out with two and a half strikes” against them. “We ask only that they not make a called third strike before they find out what we’re about, what we’re doing. Words are cheap in this business; you build credibility through deeds.” And merely appointing blacks gets Republicans nothing–nothing. “If Condi Rice were a Democrat, there’d be parades for her, she’d be on the cover of Time magazine every week.”
Upon taking office, Ehrlich proved himself a staunch foe of taxes, vetoing or squelching a number of hikes. Though a politician and lawyer, he has great sympathy for businessmen and entrepreneurs. “Small-business owners are my political base. I admire them. Many of them started with nothing–took a chance, put up the house, pursued the American dream.” He’s big on school reform, tort reform, Social Security reform (“a no-brainer”). He’s against gay marriage (“not even debatable”), the drug war (“a monumental failure”), and McCain-Feingold (“a terrible law”).
Here is his stance on abortion: He’s opposed to public funding and partial-birth abortion; he’s in favor of parental notification and parental consent (“with judicial bypass”). He is otherwise “prochoice.” He does not regard abortion as murder.
It could be that this issue–abortion–will keep him off a national ticket. But who knows? Ehrlich has many strengths, and he is popular throughout Maryland, this home of Barbara Mikulski and other liberal stalwarts. He says he will decide this summer whether to run for reelection.
In the meantime, he’s a bit of a folk hero among the country’s conservatives–in part for the enemies he has earned: the trial lawyers, the teachers’ unions, the “establishment media,” as he puts it. Indeed, Ehrlich has stiffed the Baltimore Sun, forbidding his administration to talk to two of its writers. He claims a pattern of unfairness, “but let me boil it down for you: There was this classic headline: ‘Ehrlich Okays Secret Land Deal,’ which was accurate, except that there was no deal, it wasn’t secret, and I didn’t okay it.” Was there land involved? “Yes!” And after he banned the Sun scribes, “I had many governors–Democrats–call me to say, ‘Good for you. You have done something I have always wanted to do.’”
Bright, personable, serious, fun–a winner of elections. Again, who knows? But even if he doesn’t rise higher, there’s nothing wrong with being an effective, and surprising, governor of Maryland.