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Former Maryland Gov. Ehrlich dips into local politics, but keeps his eye focused on the national scene

Cellphones held aloft, the masked crowd paid rapt attention as a former governor laid out a game plan for how they could fight the closure of the restaurants where they work due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tell your personal stories, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. advised the gathering, huddled in a tent in a restaurant parking lot on a cold, wet December night.

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“They’ve never been in your position,” Ehrlich said of politicians. “You need to explain your bottom line, what it takes to create a job in the state of Maryland, in the United States of America, late in 2020. It’s a struggle and they need to get it. They really need to get it.”

For Ehrlich, a Republican who served as governor from 2003 to 2007, the rally with Anne Arundel County restaurant owners and employees was the second local issue he’s waded into in recent months. In the fall, he publicly pushed for high school sports to be allowed to return.

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Having an ex-governor onstage was a coup for the organizers of the restaurant rally. Someone like Ehrlich lends credibility and draws interest from the media.

“We decided we needed someone who had strong exposure. A top-of-the-ticket kind of guy,” said state Del. Brian Chisholm, a Pasadena Republican who volunteered to ask Ehrlich to join the event.

Ehrlich, 63, says these local appearances aren’t part of a new pattern. In an interview, he said he intends to keep his political focus on national issues.

“It’s just been people who asked me to get involved … There’s no plan there, it’s just people who ask me for help, that’s all,” Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich’s interest in sports is long-running: He played football at the Gilman School in Baltimore and at Princeton University. He’s also the father of two student-athletes, including younger son Josh, the quarterback for Broadneck High School.

“Two of my hot spots are small business and youth sports,” Ehrlich said. “So, I would be the appropriate person to go to bat for those issues.”

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. speaks in October at a rally in Anne Arundel County for the return of high school sports. Though the former governor has appeared at local events in support of restaurants and young athletes, he says he remains focused on national politics, with a new book and podcast in the works.
Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. speaks in October at a rally in Anne Arundel County for the return of high school sports. Though the former governor has appeared at local events in support of restaurants and young athletes, he says he remains focused on national politics, with a new book and podcast in the works. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

But Ehrlich has his eye on national politics heading into 2021. He’s writing his fifth book — about Republican President Donald Trump’s influence on politics — and planning to launch a podcast with his wife, Kendel.

And Ehrlich’s also looking for ways to shape the Republican Party as it moves forward from the Trump presidency.

“What that means, I don’t know. But I do know it’s only to the positive to be raising a national profile,” he said.

Running for office again isn’t on Ehrlich’s radar. But he won’t rule out joining some type of policy or political effort.

“If it’s the right slot, the right spot, on the issues that I care about, that would be something I would look at,” he said.

Ehrlich said he previously was in preliminary talks with the Trump administration about a potential “senior position” had the president won a second term in office. He won’t say what was discussed, other than to describe the position as something that “would have been fun and it would have made a lot of sense.”

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The White House declined to comment.

After stints as a state delegate and member of Congress, Ehrlich won election as governor in 2002, breaking a string of more than 30 years of Democratic control of the governor’s office. He lost his 2006 reelection bid to Democrat Martin O’Malley, and lost a rematch to O’Malley in 2010.

After leaving the governor’s mansion, Ehrlich, who grew up in Arbutus, and his wife settled in the Annapolis area to raise their two sons.

Ehrlich has been in private legal practice for the last nine years as senior counsel at King & Spaulding. For several years, he helped run a clinic at Catholic University’s law school that focused on post-conviction relief for defendants.

Along the way, Ehrlich kept his hand in politics on the national level. In addition to his books, Ehrlich writes a column for the conservative website Western Journal.

The columns are largely a strongly partisan in defense of Trump, though Ehrlich occasionally notes that the “unvarnished Trump” has been divisive. But Ehrlich also writes that Trump’s bluntness can be a positive: “What you see is what you get.”

Some of those columns will end up in Ehrlich’s yet-to-be-titled book, a mix of prior writings and new analysis about Trump’s effect on politics and policy.

Ehrlich said he finds that Trump, to the surprise of some, made positive steps in expanding the Republican Party. He flipped some segments of the Latino community from the Democratic Party and shifted the GOP in the direction of working-class voters.

“I’ve talked and advocated for expanding the party over the years. By that I mean all lines — class, ethnicity, race, you name it,” Ehrlich said. “Here comes a very unlikely change agent, maybe the most unlikely change agent of all. He achieved a great deal of success along the lines of what I’ve wanted, and he did it in a very interesting and unique way.”

Under Trump, the Republican Party has become “less a party of the Chamber of Commerce and more a party of working-class folks,” Ehrlich said.

Asked about negative views people have of Trump’s effects on politics and policy, Ehrlich remains a Trump defender.

“That’s part of the equation. The equation has changed … Some of his personal qualities are very controversial. I think that cost him,” Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich said there are many people who liked Trump’s decisions, but not how he comported himself. Some of them still voted for Trump, while others turned away.

“When people generally like what you’ve done, but still vote against you, that’s a problem,” Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich also thinks Trump was treated unfairly, by the news media and others. The investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and that country’s meddling in the 2016 election “was always a hoax to me.”

The big question, Ehrlich said, is where does the Republican Party go forward from here?

“Is it a Trump 2.0 that hits the brakes a little bit on that aspect of his personality? Or is it a new candidate who carries a similar intellectual platform?” Ehrlich said. “Nobody knows the answer to that.”

Ehrlich acknowledged there’s likely to be a glut of books about Trump, but he thinks he’s hitting a sweet spot with a combination of analyzing what happened and looking forward.

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“This is hopefully more substance, not directed toward the politics of Trump, but more directed to the policies and how the policies have impacted the country and the party,” he said.

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Ehrlich doesn’t have a publisher lined up, but with four books under his belt, expects he won’t have trouble landing a deal. His most recent book, “Bet You Didn’t See That One Coming: Obama, Trump, and the End of Washington’s Regular Order,” was published by Post Hill Press.

Ehrlich’s view of Trump’s influence on the GOP — that it’s mostly positive — stands in stark contrast to his lieutenant governor, Michael Steele, who has been a prominent anti-Trump critic as an analyst on MSNBC and supporter of the Lincoln Project, which ran anti-Trump ads during the campaign. Steele said he voted for Democrat Joe Biden for president.

And it’s also a strikingly different point of view from the current Republican governor, Larry Hogan, who wrote the late President Ronald Reagan’s name on his ballot rather than cast a vote for Trump or Biden.

Hogan, a rare Republican elected official who occasionally pushes back against the president, has called for a Reagan-inspired, big-tent party. Hogan published his own book this year, calling for a less divisive approach to governing.

Ehrlich is also plotting a reprisal of his radio career as a way to expand his influence. From 2007 to 2010, the Ehrlichs hosted a Saturday morning talk show on WBAL-AM in Baltimore.

“The radio show was very successful and we had a lot of fun with it,” Ehrlich said.

Now, they’re working on a yet-to-be-named podcast that will debut once Kendel Ehrlich finishes her service in the Trump administration. She’s acting director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the U.S. Department of Justice, managing grants.

The podcast could nurture part of the next political generation: Helping is their older son, Drew, a student at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania.

If all goes to plan, the podcast could begin shortly after Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

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