Sauerbrey substituted one dream for another Portrait: Candidate discusses her life -- growing up poor, her father's medical problems, and her decision to pursue politics

October 04, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

The Fells Point Festival was in full swing, smiles all around, politicians thrusting their right hands out, trying to shake loose a few votes.

It was 1994, and Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the Republican nominee for governor, was all smiles as well. When a young woman approached her, Sauerbrey presented her hand. The woman ignored it.

"I could never vote for you," she told Sauerbrey. "I know you're a pro-lifer. And what really gets me sick is you could never understand what you're doing -- you don't even have kids."

Sauerbrey's face fell. She mumbled something. She had no good answer. Friends were embarrassed for her.

Later, Sauerbrey -- the hard-nosed, tax-slashing warhorse who upset the the liberal status quo of Maryland politics -- thought about her day. She was angry. She wanted to cry.

She had had no good answer to the woman's comment.

Four years later, with Sauerbrey again the Republican nominee, she'll talk about the severe criticism she took for contesting the outcome of the 1994 general election, which she lost by fewerthan 6,000 votes. She'll endure the critics who paint her as an enemy of the poor, the environment, abortion rights supporters and Maryland's public schools.

Unlike four years ago, she'll talk about her personal life, hoping to alter the pervasive view that she is a cold and insensitive woman. She'll discuss the poverty of her childhood and the painful memories of the father she adored and how doctors twice opened his skull unnecessarily because of a misdiagnosis.

About any of these things, Sauerbrey will not hesitate to talk.

Then she explains how she came to be running a political campaign rather than a household with children. Her eyes redden and begin to fill.

This time, though, she wants to cry because of her answer.

She knows critics will accuse her, the wolf, of packaging herself in political sheep's clothing. Her motives may be debated, but her goal is clear: Ellen Sauerbrey desperately wants to be Maryland's governor.

She is an anti-abortion candidate who never had children. That is not the sum of her life, but it is a fundamental part of it, and her life will in turn shape the decisions she could make as governor. And so she answers.

"It's not easy for me to open the book and let people know more about me," she said during a series of recent interviews with The Sun. "This is not about softening any image. It's about expanding what people know about me.

"It can be difficult, but the fact is, there are a lot of things people don't know about me."

'Poor as church mice'

Many people do not know this about Ellen Elaine Richmond, later to become Ellen Richmond Sauerbrey, wealthy suburbanite and confrontational Republican: She was born poor, in Baltimore, to a father who was a staunch Democrat.

Sauerbrey was born to Ethel and Edgar Richmond in 1937, as they were recovering from long stretches without work during the Depression and living with her father's mother in Northeast ,, Baltimore. Despite her parents' dreams, she would be their only child.

The family moved into a first-floor apartment on 28th Street, then to Erdman Avenue in Clifton Park.

"I know she's been portrayed as coming from a very wealthy background, but that's not true," said her mother, 85 and living in Florida. "We were as poor as church mice. From those earliest days, I think that's where Ellen got her appreciation for the value of money."

Said Sauerbrey: "I can remember my father killing a chicken in the back yard. I remember my father chopping its head off, and it kept fluttering around, and that was very disturbing to me. I remember my mother buying horse meat and making food out of it. Those are things that have stayed with me."

When she was 8, she worked for her grandfather in the Mayfield area, making corsages, wiring stems for Christmas bouquets. She snatched errant golf balls that popped into Clifton Park yards, selling them back to players.

Her father, a union man at Bethlehem Steel, insisted on hard work and good grades. When she returned home from school with a report card, having made all A's and a B, her father wanted an explanation for the single lower grade.

"All of this was loving," Sauerbrey said. "It was not done in a way that said, 'You are a bad person.' It wasn't tyrannical. It was preparing me, I think."

They adored each other. He was a strong, burly man with a tender heart. She was his little girl.

Then, when Ellen was 12, there was a scare. Her father began having trouble with his balance. He became dizzy. He fell. Doctors were puzzled, but after a series of tests they reached a diagnosis: He had multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system.

To treat him, doctors would bore two dime-sized holes in the back of his head.

Her father was in constant pain, but determined. He kept after his daughter and her grades, worked to prepare her for adulthood, when she would get married and start her own family, when she would give him grandchildren.

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