Ehrlich plays up his hard-work background

March 24, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE HOUSE in Arbutus will do just fine. That's where Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says he'll launch his campaign tomorrow for governor of Maryland. It's his very own political log cabin, the boyhood working-class home that neither money nor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend could buy.

And that's the point. In the American working-class system, most of us like to identify with the workers. Ehrlich's dad has been a car salesman at Archway Ford on Reisterstown Road. His mom's a secretary. They sound like neighborhood folks, who fret over mortgage payments and the cost of new shoes for school the way the rest of us do.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's father was famously martyred. The country can never repay the debt. But we hear the name Kennedy, and it also evokes summers on a sailboat off the coast of Hyannis Port or pony rides across Virginia's Hickory Hill countryside, and not stickball games in the middle of Dolores Avenue in Arbutus.

We like our heroes to triumph over the odds, the way we do it in our dreams. The most devastating line about George Bush the elder was Ann Richards': "He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple." In the great American success story, nobody roots for the overdog.

Or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once put it, "Nobody feels sorry for a girl on a yacht."

The lieutenant governor of Maryland, Townsend, isn't asking anybody to feel sorry for her. But she's hoping we won't hold any class resentments against her wealth and her privilege. She should be so lucky. For all her hard work, for all her family's noble efforts on behalf of the poor and the left-out over the past four decades, and all her desires to be her father's child, we still suspect one simple fact about her life:

With a different maiden name, she might still be a midlevel attorney for some government bureaucracy - and not Parris Glendening's former running mate and campaign financier - and therefore not Ehrlich's possible opponent for governor of Maryland.

So the house in Arbutus will do just fine.

Ehrlich will stand there and talk about his roots. He'll talk about identifying with the problems of working-class people, and he can relate the classic tale that allowed him to find a scholarship at Gilman because he knew how to knock down the big guys on a football field. His dad can tell everybody the story about not even being allowed into Roland Park back in his day, much less dreaming of a son going there to school every morning.

And then, if he feels like mentioning it, Ehrlich can talk about Princeton, where he was captain of the football team and subsidized a full scholarship by peddling hoagie sandwiches and working on summer construction jobs.

That's an important part of the Horatio Alger code: Nobody gave him anything. And, when Ehrlich goes to his family home tomorrow, that's part of the message: Americans don't mind working hard, but the working class is getting nailed.

They're getting nailed, he will say, by overspending in the Glendening administration that has helped plunge us into a treacherous economy. And he'll say they're getting nailed by its two top officials, Glendening and Townsend, who have taken their stand against slot machines whose vast millions Ehrlich (and many others) would like to put toward the hungry public schools.

All of this is pretty appealing - as far as it goes. We want our political leaders to have attractive life stories, especially because biographies are easier to understand than the intricacies of tax reform legislation. But we also want them to stand for something beyond a picturesque childhood. And this is where Ehrlich will have to explain that the working-class roots, and the house in Arbutus, mean something beyond television scenery.

This is a guy who went to Washington and took his marching orders from the bully-boy Newt Gingrich. They bad-mouthed all kinds of social programs that were godsends to struggling people. They're the same kinds of people Ehrlich now wants to wrap around his campaign. But when Capitol Hill Republicans were tearing into those New Deal-New Frontier-Great Society programs, a lot of Marylanders perceived them as mean-spirited and not a little bit racist.

Ehrlich knows this. He also knows he can't win by ignoring it, which is why he's wisely spent time on the radio with Larry Young. They won't agree on much, but at least Ehrlich won't pretend the racial issue isn't there the way other Republicans have.

He needs those votes. Some believe that Townsend, with the civil rights aura of her father and her Uncle Jack hovering over her, will win the state's African-American vote almost unanimously. If that were the case, Ehrlich would need 2-1 margins among white voters. That's a tough reach for anybody.

So he'll go to his Arbutus boyhood home tomorrow, and recall his working-class roots. And he'll hope it's a winning story to all those who can spot traces of their own great American dream in its telling.

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