First lady's influence draws new attention

First lady Kendel Ehrlich has re-emerged as a central part of her husband's team and as one of the state's most prominent Republicans - even drawing attention from GOP observers as a possible candidate for U.S. Senate.

Her name surfaced immediately as one of her party's strongest potential candidates for U.S. Senate after Friday's surprise announcement by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes that he would retire next year.

And later that day, her name arose in a very different setting: an e-mail she sent to former administration aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the day before he was dismissed, telling him, "Relax. You'll be fine. We need you."

Kendel Ehrlich has spent a quiet year tending to her newborn son and is comfortable with the ceremonial duties of a first lady. Administration officials say she and her husband, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., have steered clear of giving her a major policy role, like the one President Bill Clinton gave Hillary Rodham Clinton when he first came into office.

But the 43-year-old former prosecutor and public defender, who once broke up with boyfriend Bob because she couldn't stand dating a politician, has developed over the years into a sharp political player in her own right - and a guardian of loyalty in her husband's inner circle.

None of the 14,500 pages of e-mails and other documents the administration released from Steffen's computer provides evidence that Kendel Ehrlich was involved in or knew about the former aide's activities, including his efforts to spread rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley's marriage.

But the fact that Steffen, who had easy access to the highest levels of the administration, felt the need to inform the first lady that a Washington Post reporter was preparing an article about him is evidence of her importance.

"I think she is a very integral part of the administration. She is out there. She is representing him," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who has known Kendel Ehrlich for years.

Speaking on Stateline with Governor Ehrlich on WBAL-AM yesterday, Ehrlich said his wife's response to Steffen's e-mail was entirely appropriate.

"We've known Joe, obviously, he worked on our congressional staff," the governor said. "He sent an e-mail to Kendel along the lines of, 'The Post is doing a story,' and Kendel, as you would expect - she is not ignorant - she would respond in the way she responded.

"It's a basic nonstory of the year," the governor said of his wife's e-mail. "I would hope she responded in the way she did. We've known him for years."

Her familiarity with Steffen - whose loyalty to the governor is so strong that he said in an e-mail that he would "throw myself on the grenade" to protect the Ehrlich administration - fits with her behind-the-scenes role to make sure the governor's lieutenants are committed to his agenda.

'All about loyalty'

"What I am about is, I observe and assist and assess loyalty to the governor," Kendel Ehrlich said in 2003. "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 said at the time. "But as for personnel, the people around us, she has very strong opinions - hourly opinions."

She was the one, for example, who called James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. and asked him to be her husband's campaign manager for the 2002 governor's race. He stuck around after the election and, as budget secretary, has become one of the most influential members of the administration.

Kendel Ehrlich is known to be fiercely protective of her husband and grows angry at those she perceives as disloyal, Hollinger said. "She is very sensitive with things about her husband," Hollinger said.

But state Republican Party Chairman John Kane said Kendel Ehrlich's role as a forceful advocate and a strong first lady does not extend to involvement in government policy.

"She certainly has been an asset. He is the first one to tell you he married up," Kane said. "I think he listens to her advice on a regular basis. She is not involved in daily decision-making processes in the administration. She has taken on the role of first lady, not first adviser."

Kendel Ehrlich occasionally appears by her husband's side to help him with policy matters. She was with him when he vetoed the General Assembly's medical malpractice reform bill in January, and she accompanied him in the roll-out of his proposals on teenage driving restrictions this year.

Role in crime issues

The one policy area where Kendel Ehrlich appears to have a consistent role is criminal justice issues. Ehrlich has said that his attorney wife has heavily influenced his thinking on how to deal with drug crimes, and she has played a role in suggesting judicial nominees. In 2003, she addressed an orientation session for judicial nominating commissions, which screen applicants for judgeships and refer them to the governor.

She frequently has appeared on the stump to articulate her husband's goals and point of view, particularly in the early days of the administration, when the governor was first encountering difficulty in pushing his agenda through the legislature.

Since the birth of her second son, Joshua, a year ago, she has curtailed her schedule somewhat. But her ability in a public setting - aside from a well-publicized remark at a conference on preventing domestic violence that she would like to shoot pop star Britney Spears - has fueled speculation that she could run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sarbanes.

Meghann Siwinski, spokeswoman for Kendel Ehrlich, said Friday that with two young boys at home and a husband up for re-election, running for Senate is the farthest thing from the first lady's mind.

But Republicans still find the possibility of her candidacy tantalizing.

"Just seeing her on the stump over the years, not only in her role as a first lady but in her role as a fund-raiser for various charities and helping to raise money for a variety of Republican candidates, she's top-notch all the way," said Del. William J. Frank, a Towson Republican who has known the Ehrlichs for years. "If she were to choose to run for office, she'd be a terrific candidate."

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