Ehrlich 'missed being part of the debate'

Baltimore Sun

Maryland's last governor, who followed two decades in elected office by opening a Baltimore branch of a law firm and hosting a radio talk show, is tired of life on the sidelines.

Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s daily routine has, in recent months, become increasingly like a campaign. Within weeks, many expect he will announce that he'll run against Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who defeated him in November 2006.

"I have missed being part of the debate. I have been frustrated by the policy decisions in Annapolis and on Capitol Hill," Ehrlich said. "The radio show, the speeches and all that - I can get my message out there. But in this business, you're either in or you're out."

The chances of his return to power - while no sure bet in a deeply blue state - seem as good as ever since his lone election loss. Less than two years after President Barack Obama carried Maryland by a huge margin and the state's congressional delegation went from 80 percent Democratic to 90 percent, Ehrlich, 52, appears ready to ride an anti-incumbent surge as far as it will take him.

When Maryland voters replaced Ehrlich after one term, he and his wife, Kendel Ehrlich, and their two small boys packed up the governor's mansion and moved three miles away to a $750,000 house. He took a job as a "rainmaker" for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, a North Carolina-based law firm that was expanding its Mid-Atlantic presence. He and Kendel signed on to host a Saturday talk show on WBAL.

He has spent most every Saturday coaching and supporting his 10-year-old son Drew's football, baseball and basketball teams. Josh, 6, just began playing baseball this year. Ehrlich, who was co-captain of the Princeton University football team, said he believes athletics could help insulate the boys from a potentially bruising campaign by "focusing them on something other than what their parents are doing."

A congenial magnetA graduate of Wake Forest Law School in Winston-Salem, N.C. who once worked for the Maryland firm Ober/Kaler, Ehrlich quickly returned to the law. He chose Womble Carlyle.

The job description, Ehrlich said, is to be "the face of the firm." His duties include "speeches, coffees, dinners, lunches, meetings."

Ehrlich brought with him a cadre of top aides - keeping together the team that directed his communications strategy in the State House. Other Womble employees with ties to Ehrlich include David Hamilton, a former Ober colleague and his personal attorney while governor; former deputy chief of staff Edward B. Miller and former counsel J.P. Scholtes.

Ehrlich said Womble gave him two years to become profitable. That first year, in a slow economy, he said, was "tough." As a rainmaker, he said, "I wasn't exactly sure what to do."

But by the end of the trial period, Ehrlich said, the Baltimore office had become "quite profitable." It has grown from three to 10 attorneys and has 12 other employees. They've moved from temporary space in Linthicum to a spread with a commanding view of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Keith Vaughan, Womble's managing partner in Winston-Salem, said Ehrlich has been "a real magnet" for recruiting clients.

"He has been central to the development of our Baltimore office, which is making good progress," Vaughan said, adding that Ehrlich is low-maintenance and congenial. The firm, he said, understood when it hired Ehrlich that "there may come a time when he decided to once again enter the public arena as a candidate."

Ehrlich wouldn't disclose his office's financial details, including his salary, saying that information is "above my pay grade." Vaughan also declined to reveal what the former governor earns.

No one in the office is a registered lobbyist in Maryland or Washington, and Ehrlich is not listed as an attorney on any Maryland case. Ehrlich said he has no clients with state contracts. "You would really not want to hire us to do business with the state of Maryland," he said, laughing, a reference to the state's overwhelmingly Democratic political leadership.

Henry Fawell, who serves as Ehrlich's spokesman at Womble as he did in the State House, said financial companies, including SunTrust Bank and Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, and medical companies such as Precision Antibodies and A&G; Pharmaceutical are among the office's clients.

Democrats have already raised issues with the intersection of Ehrlich's life at Womble and his potential candidacy.

Party Chairwoman Susan Turnbull wrote to the State Board of Elections this month complaining that the law office is "serving as the de facto campaign headquarters" without disclosing it as an in-kind contribution.

Vaughan said Womble's employees "do not work on a clock" and that many, an even split of Democrats and Republicans, are politically active.

"Everyone is expected to do a professional job and get work done," he said. "If the time they spend helping a candidate is during the day or the evening, we don't worry about that."

Play-fights during breaksEhrlich has been far more visible as a media figure and would-be political candidate than as a practicing lawyer.

On a recent Saturday, Bob and Kendel Ehrlich, sunglasses atop their heads, whirled into the WBAL radio studio on Television Hill moments before they took the air for the weekly 9 a.m. show they launched in March 2007. Greg Massoni, another former gubernatorial spokesman and show producer who works at Womble, was right behind them.

Ehrlich said he didn't enjoy the show at first because it was "a constant reminder that, as pundits, there's nothing we can do" about issues facing the state. Now, he says, the weekly appearances provide a good way to stay connected to Marylanders.

He and Kendel Ehrlich are at ease in the dimly lit studio, play-fighting during commercials.

The day before Congress passed health care reform, which Ehrlich called "the worst bill ever," the husband-and-wife team took questions from supportive callers. Ehrlich was a member of Congress for eight years, after eight years as a moderate Republican state delegate representing Baltimore County. Just before their 11 a.m. sign-off, Dave Schwartz, who campaigned for Ehrlich and is Maryland director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, called in to promote a rally that day in Washington.

Neither the station nor the Ehrlichs would disclose what they are paid.

WBAL has begun planning for an Ehrlich candidacy, and station news director Mark Miller said he believes Federal Communications Commission rules allow Ehrlich to stay on air until he files the paperwork that makes him a candidate, which he would have to do by July 6. After that, Miller said, the duo may remain as hosts if the station offers equal time to other candidates. Another alternative: Kendel Ehrlich, a former Anne Arundel County public defender who worked part-time at Comcast during her husband's administration, might continue solo.

The message, not moneyEhrlich said he was fully prepared for a life away from politics after leaving the governor's office, though Kendel told him she never truly believed his political career was over.

His view was affirmed, he said, by the 2008 presidential election.

"I looked around at the landscape of Maryland, and I didn't find anybody, with the exception of Congressman Bartlett, who possessed ideas even close to mine," he said, referring to Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the state's lone Republican in Washington. "At the start of 2009, I had told everyone that most likely my public career is done."

But then the mood of the country - and the state, Ehrlich hopes - began to shift. Republicans reclaimed the governor's offices in Virginia and New Jersey last fall, and then Republican Scott Brown unexpectedly won a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts.

So Ehrlich launched what he called "an interactive listening tour," crisscrossing the state to talk to Marylanders. His assessment: "This is much, much different from 1993-94," when he was elected to Congress and Republicans took control promising to enact their "Contract with America" under new House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"It's not a Republican movement. It's not a populist movement," he said. Rather, people, particularly small business owners, are "scared." "We need some leadership, we need some fiscal responsibility," he said was a common refrain.

Ehrlich may not be a declared candidate, but he has laid the groundwork. He has been speaking to business leaders and to Republican groups, peppering his remarks with hints about his future. On several occasions, he has even dangled the prospect of running against Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat and arguably the most popular politician in the state.

His state campaign account contained $140,000 at the end of January, compared to O'Malley's $5 million. Aides say he has picked up the pace of donations, particularly from business leaders, but won't disclose any totals. "We have not been sitting on our hands," said Richard E. Hug, Ehrlich's longtime fundraiser. "We'll have enough money to do what we need to do. This campaign is not going to be about the money as much as it is going to be about the message and the messenger."

Not a grudge matchAfter a come-from-behind win over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002, Ehrlich returned to Annapolis amid promises to shake up an entrenched Democratic status quo. He said at the time that he knew how Annapolis worked from his years as a young delegate, but soon learned the town had changed.

"I think he tried hard to resurrect old legislative friendships to find that some folks put politics before policy and I think that probably soured him some toward Annapolis," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican. "But I don't think he ever gave up trying."

As governor, Ehrlich pushed through a major Chesapeake Bay restoration initiative that included a tax on sewer and septic systems, but was stymied on what became his top priority: adopting a statewide slot machine gambling plan.

Republicans, and many Democrats, who worked with him call him friendly and down-to-earth.

"He's not a bad person," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat who has led the chamber since 1987. "He's thoughtful, and he has ideas that can benefit the state of Maryland."

But Miller has also called Ehrlich "lazy," and said O'Malley is a better governor.

As word spread last week about a potential Ehrlich announcement date - April 7, according to a Washington television news host who says he learned it from "an informed source" - O'Malley said he was "looking forward" to a rematch.

Ehrlich lost to O'Malley by a 6 percentage-point margin in 2006, the only sitting governor in the country to be ousted that year.

"This is not a grudge match," Ehrlich said. "People are worried about their jobs, the economy. The last thing they want to see or hear about is that sort of schoolyard stuff."

Regaining the governor's office in a state where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage would be no small task, Ehrlich acknowledges. But he says his own poll numbers in a theoretical race have been "pretty good." A recent independent poll by the Rasmussen Group showed O'Malley with a six-point lead over Ehrlich.

Democrats, publicly, and some Republicans privately, have criticized Ehrlich's failure to commit to a gubernatorial campaign, saying he has run other candidates, including one of his former Cabinet members, out of the race. One after another, callers to his radio show ask when he'll announce. "The answer to your question," he told one last week, "is that we'll be talking to you real soon."

Other Republicans deflect the same question with a smile. At a charity Little League baseball tournament last weekend in Crownsville, where Drew played ball and Ehrlich threw out a ceremonial first pitch, Republican state Sen. Edward R. Reilly of Anne Arundel County whispered to an admirer of the former governor: "The longer he waits, the more people talk."

Though Ehrlich says he only recently began to feel the pull back toward public life, he said he has lived his life the past three years as if it may one day be scrutinized.

"I felt the pressure of making this law firm successful. I felt the pressure of making the radio show successful," he said. "I tried to keep pressure on myself to be successful - not just because it's important to me, but because I know a lot of people will be looking at how successful we've been."

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