One month after stepping down as Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and several of his top aides are opening a Baltimore-area office of a major North Carolina law firm, which will include a public affairs consulting group.
"Sitting in an office and billing hourly is not something I wanted to do," said Ehrlich, 49. "The opportunity to bring in new clients, meet challenges, bring in people who have done such a good job running the state was very attractive to me."
Ehrlich is joining Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, a 500-member firm that employs several former elected and appointed officials, including former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat.
Hunt said the firm was looking to expand into the Mid-Atlantic region and particularly in Maryland because of the large concentration of life sciences businesses around Johns Hopkins and along the Interstate 270 corridor. Ehrlich's loss last fall was their gain, he said.
Ehrlich will be joined by his former communications director, Paul E. Schurick; his former press officer, Greg Massoni; and a former spokesman, Henry P. Fawell. None is an attorney.
Former Deputy Chief of Staff Edward B. Miller and former counsel J.P. Scholtes, who are attorneys, will also join the group, as will David B. Hamilton, formerly of the Ober/Kaler law firm in Baltimore, who was Ehrlich's personal attorney.
Miller came in for heavy criticism from Democrats over the past four years for his association with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. According to state documents and congressional testimony, Miller was the founder and sole owner of a company that Abramoff used to launder money in 2003. Miller sold the company when he entered government service later that year and was never charged with a crime.
Also, Hamilton was the subject of a state ethics complaint over the government relations practice he set up at Ober/Kaler, though he was cleared of allegations that he improperly engaged in lobbying without registering with the state.
Ehrlich, a graduate of Princeton University, practiced law at Ober/Kaler for 12 years after graduating from the Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem (where Womble Carlyle is based). He served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1989 to 1995 and in Congress from 1995 to 2003.
He said that Womble Carlyle was the first to contact him after his election loss in November to Democrat Martin O'Malley, and that it offered him a chance to engage in a more entrepreneurial kind of law practice than he could have gotten elsewhere.
Ehrlich, firm Chairman Keith W. Vaughn and Hunt, who served four terms as North Carolina's governor, announced Ehrlich's new job in a series of interviews in the private dining room of an Annapolis hotel yesterday afternoon.
Shirt sleeves rolled up, Ehrlich spoke animatedly about the opportunities the firm offers him to expand its business among life sciences firms and with international clients, principally in Asia.
The new office will initially be based in the Linthicum area near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Womble Carlyle's roots date back more than a century, when it built a practice serving North Carolina's tobacco, textile and furniture industries, and it is now a pillar of the state's legal establishment, said Ferrel Guillory, director of the University of North Carolina's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life.
"This is Law Firm Inc.," Guillory said. "Well-connected, all of those adjectives that you use for one of the two or three most-powerful firms in the state."
Signing on with an out-of-state firm, even a prominent one, is an unusual move for a former Maryland governor. Several have wound up working for major Baltimore law firms, though former Gov. Harry Hughes started a Baltimore office for a Washington firm. They have often remained involved in Maryland public affairs.
Democrats said they aren't surprised to see Ehrlich start a new career away from the State House.
"We congratulate Bob Ehrlich and his staff on their new positions," said Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson. "At least he'll be able to play golf now without having the press look over his shoulder."
Vaughn said the aides Ehrlich is bringing to the practice with him are a plus. The firm has expanded the services it offers in recent years to include more lobbying, consulting and communications services to its clients, Vaughn said.
"Our firm is in the business of helping clients succeed," Vaughn said. "If you want to help a client succeed in solving problems or seizing opportunities, you've got to have people on board with experience not just in law but in how governments apply the law ... and in public affairs, because a lot of these things play out in the public arena."
One of the firm's new avenues of business is "crisis communications." Womble Carlyle's client list includes tobacco and firearms companies, as well as pharmaceutical firms, banks, furniture companies and other major corporations. Womble Carlyle has a government relations practice, but Ehrlich said he won't be a part of it. Some of the associates he is bringing into the firm might, but that practice would be focused on Washington, not Annapolis, Ehrlich said.
Although former congressmen often become lobbyists, former governors usually don't, said former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, a Democrat who is a political science professor at Northeastern University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Some become academics or university presidents, Dukakis said, but most stay involved in some way with public affairs.
"We're all so deeply involved and committed to what we're trying to do that very few of us disappear," Dukakis said.
Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, who sat in on the interviews with him, said they don't intend to disappear.
Kendel Ehrlich said she has taken a job as a director of the Bank of Annapolis and is doing some consulting work there.
The Ehrlichs said they are readjusting to civilian life - a task they said is easier because their two small children, Drew and Josh, kept them from getting too used to the trappings of office.
"OK, I miss the chefs," Kendel Ehrlich said.
The former governor has said he will not be directly involved in Maryland politics and won't criticize his successor, a pledge he stuck to yesterday. But both Ehrlichs said they intend to stay involved in public affairs. More announcements will be coming in the next few weeks, they said.
Said Robert Ehrlich: "You aren't done with us yet."