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A season of budgets and babies for the Ehrlichs


The baby comes before the budget, that much is certain, but both will be miracles.

Kendel Ehrlich, wife of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is ready. Merely walking across the room leaves her breathless, I noted on a recent visit to Government House, the governor's mansion. A big change from her last pregnancy, she says, but you know second pregnancies are harder. This baby, sex unknown, is squishing her lungs. Otherwise, everything is normal, which makes her happy since she is 42 years old.

The due date is March 16.

The state budget won't be ready for another three weeks.

Being pregnant in the governor's mansion is very different from being pregnant as a congressman's wife. Not as quiet, certainly, despite her cues: No baby showers. No fuss. No posing for photos like Demi Moore.

Last time, her husband drove the 15 minutes to the hospital after her water broke. This time, a state trooper will drive, and the trip is 45 minutes. She will deliver at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, in the same room where Drew, the Ehrlichs' son, was born in July 1999, four days late. The doctor, Claire Weitz, a high-risk births specialist in huge demand, has promised to be there. "You want her there on 'game day,'" the first lady says.

It is not quite true that the governor won't be with his wife during her labor. His comment last fall that he has no desire to be in the delivery room caused a backlash at water coolers around the state. Is the governor living in the 1950s? "I hope people understand those decisions are private," Kendel Ehrlich says. When Drew was born, she says, her husband was close enough to hear "it's a boy" - let's put it that way.

"He is not a 'cut the umbilical cord' kind of guy," she says. "He's not going to catch the baby."

Besides, she says, his hands are full with a 4 1/2 -year-old.

And the legislature.

This is her husband's second child, but it is his first budget, the first, anyway, where he gets to set priorities. Last year, he had only 10 days to submit a spending plan. This year he's had months. For Kendel Ehrlich, it was a year much like the campaign, an incredible amount of work; hiring people, making the mansion a home, entertaining 200 people a week.

And now, the baby.

"Waiting for things to settle down is not in my repertoire," she says.

On the other hand, Ehrlich says, "I'm looking forward to having as a true priority being a mom.

"It's gotta be family at this point, and I'm excited about that. I appreciate the freedom of going in and out of the workplace."

Having a choice is what she hopes for all women, though she says she knows many can't make it because of money.

"It takes a lot of strength to give up your own fulfillment to really focus on the family," she says. "I think the new wave for freedom is women being able to make those choices."

The baby will sleep in Drew's old crib in a room with decorator curtains and a Pottery Barn rug. This is somewhere beyond the sitting room where I had coffee with Ehrlich; the private quarters have always been off-limits. No photo shoots of the nursery, either. "It's basic, neutral," she says, and if she knew ahead that the baby was a girl, "It wouldn't have been too pink anyway." Animals and fun are more her style.

Ehrlich's public schedule is winding down. For one thing, she's uncomfortable. And for another, she's in the forgetting stage of pregnancy - the one in which your attention turns from present to future. Ehrlich, a lawyer, still works at home on projects, such as a new women's museum in Baltimore and - "shoot, I forgot the other thing, Oh, yes ... " helping to fund a preservation foundation for the city of Annapolis.

And she continues to serve as First Listener and Supporter-in-Chief. As a "voice piece" for the administration, in her words, she is briefed on her husband's priorities, including the budget and his slots bill to raise money for education. "He's laid out his plan, this year it's more specific, and now he's trying to get the legislature to go along.

"They have fine-tuned the team, it's a great cabinet, not to mention a budget secretary [James V. "Chip" DiPaula Jr.] able to get half of the deficit out of there over the summer without raising taxes. Now," she says, "we're worried about the out years."

She means the next few years when there isn't any money coming in to pay for the $1.3 billion "Thornton" education plan. "The dilemma is that no one is bending on the mandatory [part], and no one is coming up with a plan on how to fund it."

She's irritated, and she says citizens are "really angry," that House Speaker Michael E. Busch continues to "stonewall" her husband's slots plan. Hasn't he learned from the defeats of his friends, Cas Taylor, the former speaker, and Bruce Poole, a former lawmaker from Hagerstown? "Re-election in his district is very unlikely, in our estimation," she says.

(At this moment, Busch was across the street on his way to the post office, where he maintains a box for campaign contributions. He retrieved a lone piece of junk mail, but he wasn't fazed. Many in his district, like him, are opposed to slots; maybe his constituents don't want taxes, true, which he has said may be needed, with slots, to pay for education. But they don't like deficits, either.

"Tell Kendel that Glendening [lost popular support] because of a billion-dollar-deficit," he huffed.)

Come spring, when Kendel Ehrlich hopes to take walks outside with the new baby, she might ask Parris Glendening himself. The former governor was pushing a baby carriage of his own down Main Street one recent day. What a difference a year makes for this new dad; his hair grown over his collar, the two-term former governor resembles Bob Cratchit channeling a hippie.

I digress.

From now through the autumn, it's step back with family time for Kendel Ehrlich.

The biggest thing for her is establishing a routine. Will the baby grow as fast as Drew did? When will he or she sleep through the night? It's all so unpredictable.

Same with the budget. Will the governor get his slots? Be forced to scale back on education? Give in on taxes? Labor another year for his priorities?

Maybe, oh maybe, the budget could come early. Did you know that three of the four analysts preparing the budget in the Senate are pregnant?

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