Ehrlich open to a higher role Congressman viewed by GOP as rising star; CAMPAIGN 1996


Even as he asks voters to give him a second term in Congress, freshman Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. looks to a future that could include a try for the U.S. Senate or the governor's mansion.

Most politicians on the eve of an always-treacherous first re-election campaign would deny any ambition beyond service to their current constituencies.

Caution might be particularly recommended for a Republican such as Ehrlich, whose Democratic challenger, Connie Galiazzo DeJuliis, is well-financed, labor-backed and increasingly sure-footed. Though decidedly conservative, Maryland's 2nd District has twice as many Democrats as Republicans. Ehrlich is running hard to keep his seat, to be sure, but his open interest in statewide office seems remarkable in a profession not renowned for candor -- and in a year when Republican congressmen are running with the burden of a politically diminished leader, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and a presidential candidate, Bob Dole, who trails in public opinion polls.

Ehrlich's confidence springs from many sources.

The Maryland GOP sees him as its most promising new leader. He has become the personification of Republican resurgence in a Democratic state that has rejected every Republican bid for statewide office since 1980, when Charles McC. Mathias won his last term in the U.S. Senate.

"Bobby is every dream we ever had for a farm team come true," says Carol Hirschburg, a GOP activist.

Opponents see Ehrlich as a formidable contender, a man who could end a few Democratic careers.

Ehrlich's own polling shows him in good shape in this campaign, but DeJuliis predicts 2nd District voters will be offended by any suggestion he is looking beyond them to his own future.

Democrats gear up

Sensing vulnerability, allies of the Democratic challenger, here and nationally, are coming after Ehrlich with everything they have -- not just to help her, but to lower the trajectory of a rising star who could be a threat to Democrats later.

National labor groups have poured tens of thousands of dollars into the DeJuliis campaign. Last week, Don Fowler, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, visited Towson to scorn him and to praise her.

Ehrlich, who never seems to have enough opponents, loves the attention.

"I think they're pretty desperate. If I only had class warfare and generational warfare to sell, I'd be desperate too," he says in response to the Fowler visit.

During his first term, Ehrlich has been a prolific writer of opposite-editorial page articles in newspapers, taking on President Clinton; John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO; and Ehrlich's Democratic House colleague, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland's 3rd District. Most recently, he turned to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has helped raise money for DeJuliis.

"If he wants to stick his nose in," says Ehrlich, a one-time Princeton University linebacker, "he might get it bloodied."

Confident of victory

His partisans see a guaranteed victory for the blue-collar hometown boy who went to Gilman School in Baltimore, then on to an Ivy League college and law school at Wake Forest.

He paid dues as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, made friends among the most respected members of both parties and waited his turn to run for Congress in the district that includes all of Harford County, northern and eastern Baltimore County, and a small piece of northern Anne Arundel County.

So far, he's done everything a Republican must do in a state where the GOP is outnumbered nearly 2-1.

Now, just one term into his congressional career, people are suggesting he might be ready for higher office. Would he abandon his district so quickly?

Without declaring himself a candidate, Ehrlich says he is "an idea person," someone whose talents and inclinations make him more suitable for the U.S. Senate. In 1998, Barbara A. Mikulski, a proven force in Maryland politics, would have to run again.

Sauerbrey expected to run

The State House is up for election in that year, also, but Ehrlich seems less interested in what is more an administrative post (although he quickly says, "You can be an idea person as an executive, too -- and you have more power to get your ideas implemented").

His party's 1994 nominee, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, will almost certainly be the GOP choice. If she runs for governor, he will not, he says.

Even with Sauerbrey out, Ehrlich says he would be a candidate for governor only if business and opinion leaders of Maryland declared a deep personal and financial commitment to oust Glendening.

And, finally, he would find the job attractive only if he decided, after careful reflection, that he could "move the state forward on a positive course."

His confident discussion of his future rests also on his view that Maryland has shifted politically toward conservatism. He points to Sauerbrey's near-win in the governor's race in 1994, election of more Republicans in the state legislature that year and a slow shift toward balance in statewide voter registration.

All of that suggests that Ehrlich's political appeal could travel well.

At 38, he is a sharply focused Young Turk, smart and mirthful. Those qualities have helped him build a following among youthful voters, some of whom are giving him a contributor base as well.

Ehrlich compared to Reagan

One of these financial supporters is Dr. William G. Zitzmann Jr., an anesthesiologist at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He says Ehrlich brings many elements of the ideal candidate, most notably a dynamic enthusiasm and an approach to people, politics and public affairs that Zitzmann likened to Ronald Reagan and William Donald Schaefer.

"They were close to the people, and I think Bob is too," he said.

The 43-year-old Zitzmann finds Ehrlich's philosophy -- including positions supporting abortion rights and opposing term limits -- a good fit with people in their general age group.

If he seems moderate to Zitzmann, Ehrlich has risked a more conservative image.

His congressional freshman book bag fairly bulged with volumes recommended by House Speaker Gingrich, leaving the man from Baltimore County looking doctrinaire to some. He adopted much of the hard-right language -- "statist social engineering class warfare boutique programs," and so on.

He took on a court decree that would have moved Baltimore housing project residents to areas of his district in southeast Baltimore County. That stance has earned him support from those who believe the poor will bring financial ruin to their neighborhoods.

But if his opposition is seen as opposition to blacks, it could damage his vote-getting potential as a statewide candidate.

DeJuliis has given him a taste of what lies ahead. In debates, she has hit him repeatedly with planks lifted from his own platform, "Contract with America," and for opposing an increase in the minimum wage.

Votes are defended

Ehrlich stands his ground: "It's really bad politics to oppose the increase," he replied to the debate audience, "but you know what? You didn't send me down there to make the easy votes."

This election will be a test of Ehrlich's assumption that voters still want what they wanted in 1994 -- now that they see the cost to them.

Whatever happens this year or in the future, though, he says he does not expect political office always to be there for him despite the positive forecasts.

"I'm complimented to be where I am," he says.

"But I'm humbled, too. I realize how unstable a public career can be, and that thought is never very far from my mind."

Pub Date: 10/08/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad