Down on Newt's Farm

January 07, 1995|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland's newest congressman, says he was on a train from New York to Baltimore three weeks ago when he first learned he was a member of Newt Gingrich's ''farm team.'' Mr. Ehrlich ran across his name in a New York Times piece that listed him among the up-and-comers in the Washington revolution plotted by Mr. Gingrich, the self-described ''irrepressible 4-year-old'' who is now speaker of the House of Representatives.

The close link to Mr. Gingrich shouldn't have been too great a surprise for the Republican freshman from Maryland's Second Congressional District. After all, Mr. Gingrich stumped for Mr. Ehrlich last September. He appeared at an Ehrlich campaign breakfast where each donor contributed $500 to the candidate in exchange for a handshake and a photograph with the Georgia congressman. Mr. Gingrich also pledged $1,000 of his own money to Mr. Ehrlich's attempt to win the seat vacated by Helen Bentley.

Newt Gingrich has labored similarly for GOP candidates since the mid-1980s. This week saw the payoff: a Republican-controlled Congress in which many of the majority members owe their lofty positions to Mr. Gingrich. Thus the speaker's powerful grip on the House. Anyone looking for this bunch to buck their leader could be in for a long wait.

And what about Bob Ehrlich? His Democratic opponent in last year's Congressional race, Gerry L. Brewster, suggested at the time of the Gingrich visit that Mr. Ehrlich was already playing the part of ventriloquist's dummy for the Georgian and the national GOP.

Mr. Ehrlich did nothing to deflect such talk last month when he threatened a congressional investigation into Maryland's gubernatorial election. He says he wouldn't have ''lent my name'' to Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey's mission to overturn Democrat Parris N. Glendening's victory if he hadn't seen ''real meat'' in the allegations made by Mrs. Sauerbrey, his former House of Delegates district-mate. Asked if this isn't the sort of federal intervention that conservative Republicans decry, Mr. Ehrlich says an exception can be made for the cause of ensuring a fair election. More than a few observers, however, have said that both the Sauerbrey challenge and the Ehrlich threats, orchestrated by national party leaders, contain more hamburger helper than real meat.

As for being drafted for the Gingrich ''farm team,'' Mr. Ehrlich, 37, says, ''That's fine. But I don't have a relationship with him yet. My plan is to vote according to my views and those of my constituents. I won't be thinking, 'I can't push the wrong button or Newt will freeze me out.' I think he'll understand. Remember, this is the guy who went against George Bush's tax deal in 1990.''

It's worth noting that President Bush's response to his fellow Republican's disloyalty was despairing whining. One suspects Mr. Gingrich will deal with wayward House members more forcefully.

Kenneth H. Masters, a Catonsville Democrat who served as the House of Delegates majority leader, contends that Mr. Ehrlich need not be bound to follow the speaker's bidding so long as voters in the Second District are comfortable with him and his decisions.

''Gingrich didn't get Bob Ehrlich elected to Congress; Bob Ehrlich did [with 63 percent of the vote],'' says Mr. Masters, who worked with Mr. Ehrlich for eight years on the House Judiciary Committee. ''It was a Republican year, true, but Bob has always gotten by on his diligence and dedication. He has the credentials.''

Mr. Ehrlich also has the legislative experience many other freshmen in the House lack -- which is why he doesn't feel ''blown away'' by the tasks ahead of him. ''I've been a conservative legislator for eight years. Now I'm ready to do it in Washington,'' he says.

The ultimate goal of the GOP Congress? ''To re-limit government,'' says Mr. Ehrlich. ''To teach people that when a problem occurs, the first thing they should do is not hit up the federal government. Try to fix it yourself first. The government that governs least, governs best. The government that's closest to the people is the best government.''

Meanwhile, the Second District representative remarks that his re-election campaign begins in a little more than a year. How successful he will be in the November 1996 balloting should depend mainly on whether he pleases the folks back home. But, at the same time, he seems mindful that he must also be a dutiful farmhand for the new overseer of the House of Representatives.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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