Maryland's first gentleman? Mentor: In the Sauerbrey household, Ellen's running for governor, but her husband, Wilmer, is the real conservative.

September 07, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

When Ellen Sauerbrey developed an interest in politics, she didn't have to look far for a mentor. He was sitting on the other side of the dinner table.

It was the early 1960s, and her husband, Wilmer, liked to talk about the world that was changing at lightning speed. He gave her books on history and economics. Together, they read economist Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" and Sen. Barry M. Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative."

By the time the young couple danced at Spiro T. Agnew's gubernatorial ball, she shared virtually all her husband's

conservative views.

Today, the Sauerbreys rarely have time for any discussion, philosophical or otherwise. She is on the road, tirelessly campaigning to become Maryland's first Republican governor since Agnew -- and the first female governor in state history. He is content to stay home, to sell real estate, putter in the yard and walk their German shepherd, Hans.

"I think she needs lots of people to support her," Wilmer Sauerbrey says, "and those people have to feel comfortable that they have a direct line to Ellen without her spouse being in the way."

Friends say they can barely count on one hand the times the 63-year-old retired engineer has interfered with a campaign decision. He doesn't want a seat on the campaign bus -- or at the front table at fund-raisers crowded with his wife's fans.

On the occasions when he does accompany his wife to a political party, only the "Wil Sauerbrey" name tag keeps him from being mistaken for another silver-haired Rotarian making small talk. He tends to wear old-fashioned white shirts and narrow neckties, the way he might have while working at AAI, the Hunt Valley defense contractor, 25 years ago.

"To tell you the truth, if you didn't know his last name, you would not know his wife is an important political figure," says Dawn Covahey, corporate sales manager at Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty in Towson, where Sauerbrey is an agent.

Helen Kadlec, who went to college with Ellen, agrees: "He doesn't seem to mind letting her be in the limelight."

It's been that way throughout her political career, ever since she was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1978. He had considered running for office himself back then, but figured he didn't have the time between work and attending law school at night.

Conservative still

But just because he's not a presence in her campaign doesn't mean Wilmer Sauerbrey has changed since he introduced his wife to politics. Friends and political allies agree that in the Sauerbrey household, he's the real conservative. His wife may be moderating her message, but he still opposes any form of abortion, welfare and even routine government loans.

"Wil's tendency is to tell Ellen, 'Look what your liberal friends are doing now,' " says House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County, a longtime friend of the Sauerbreys.

"He believes government has no business fooling in the economy at all," Kittleman adds. "Ellen might back bonds or other programs. She's more tolerant."

David Blumberg, chairman of the Republican Party in Baltimore, agrees. "Wil has a basic distrust of government in general. Ellen as a legislator has seen that government really can make a difference in a lot of ways."

Just how deep is the distrust? Wilmer Sauerbrey has formulated his own golden rule:

"With one exception, any problems that ever existed in society have either been created by government or made worse by government." Only disease, he says, is not government's fault.

That kind of blunt talk makes some suspect that Ellen R. Sauerbrey's advisers are just as happy that he wants no part in the campaign. The Republican front-runner has been trying to recast herself, to overcome an image of doctrinaire, one-dimensional conservatism, as she prepares for a likely rematch with Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"You ask Wil how he feels about something, and he'll tell you," says Richard Montalto, who orchestrated the 1994 Sauerbrey campaign. "He has strong opinions, and there are people who tend to sidestep straight questions who would prefer that he's not around."

Sauerbrey's deliberate, soft-spoken husband could suddenly find himself thrust into a unique role. He would be Maryland's first gentleman.

Her husband supported her decision to try again, after she came within 5,993 votes of victory four years ago, though it meant more time apart. Still, she wonders about a move to the governor's mansion.

"I don't know," she says. "I can't imagine my husband really living in Annapolis. He's a very private person, and he likes to be in an environment where he can be out in the woods. He likes to putter. I think he's really a farmer at heart."

He's not out planting soybeans. But Wilmer Sauerbrey does garden and has devoted countless hours to refinishing the hardwood floors and fixing the old farmhouse in northern Baltimore County that they bought for $80,000 in 1971.

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